We were on Kittys porch when the darkness came. Kitty was a very pretty almost 18. She and her brother were jitterbug attractions and were practicing some of their gambits to a record that was playing while my friend Earl and I watched.
Kittys oldest brother came out and make the announcement that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. I still remember the silence that followed while the impact registered on all of us. Little did we as young people realize that it was a watershed day; it was to be a threshold at which we all crossed into another era.
Our attention had been directed with some uncertainty toward the war in Europe. As we heard of the terrible havoc in the wake of that Japanese sneak attack we were stunned. When someone finally spoke it was with a burning anger. The flame of that anger was sweeping the country. The darkness of that moment lasted through the terrible global war that followed. The flames of that anger were sustained by the atrocities visited on the American troops and the innocent victims of aggression.
It is out of the fog of our personal interests that we are brought together by a crisis. Whether it is true or not that heroes are made, not born, it is certain that individuals reactions in times of crisis are a certification of their character. Our individual and national character was tested, and it was displayed in our national unity and in the sacrifice we made to the common cause.
The Depression years had produced a generation that was already inured to being deprived of luxury; the people were not as yet being shielded from hardship by the various forms of insurance and dole that began to impact the cultural mores following the war. The WPA and the CCC were the beginning of the government umbrella that later mushroomed into welfare, the charity administered by the federal government. The cushion contributed to later enemies perception that America was soft.
On Sept. 11, the nation was shocked as live pictures appeared on television of the devastation as two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, and the heart-rending scene of the violent deaths of so many people. The present count is at least double the injured and dead from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Our president, supported by Congress, quickly declared war on terrorism and committed the nation to a course of action which could test the moral reserves of the American people. It is an inevitable course and may have, tragically, been delayed too long because of commercial and economic concerns.
The media is presenting us as a united nation, and the emotional aftershock seems to support this in spite of scattered pacifism. The question of whether the U.S. is too soft, spoiled, racially and religiously fragmented and too self-serving for a lasting unity of purpose will now be tested.
The public ire was aroused and maintained in past experiences by such things as love of country, and by family, friends and neighbors. The involvement of fathers, sons, relatives and friends, placed in harms way, drew the people into a unified sacrificial effort.
This new test will establish for the enemys view what the national courage, character and resolve will be. Will our conviction be greater than that of the terrorists, who are suicidally motivated by an extremist perversion of their view of Gods will?
The implications of being at war with this enemy can be read from our experience with the Japanese kamikaze mentality. Time and again the Japanese chose death before surrender. On Iwo Jima almost the entire force of 22,000 died in their underground caverns, bunkers and pillboxes rather than surrender. Iwo Jima proved to be costly for American Marines.
For the generations of Americans who have arrived or been born since then, war has been fought in televised episodes at an emotional distance with no demands for personal sacrifice or suffering. Except for those who had some intimacy with the war in Korea and Vietnam, Americans shrugged at or snubbed those events, and even criticized and condemned those efforts at the expense of those involved.
It remains to be seen if the patriotic fervor will be maintained with a willingness to sacrifice as we wage a war with an implacable, fanatical enemy that justifies itself behind a religious screen, and that resides in active cells abroad and hidden in our midst. It is a writhing evil serpent whose multiple heads are the nation-states that sponsor and nourish it. Will America stand tall with an unwavering front?
(Joe Cook is a Martinez resident.)
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