My Pearl Harbour Experience

A. Walter Dorn, 7 December 2001

(written en route from Honolulu to Tokyo; edited 13 August 2011)

The 7th of December 1941 was declared by President Franklin Roosevelt "a date which will live in infamy," because the United States was subjected to an unexpected and massively destructive attack. While visiting Honolulu on 7 December 2001, sixty years after that eventful day, I made a short but personally meaningful visit to Pearl Harbour. I felt called to a rendezvous with history, and I wanted to pay my respects in the special place and to reflect on the lessons for today. It seemed to me that there remains so much of relevance to America and the world today.

While wandering through the grounds outside the USS Arizona monument, every second seemed to be filled with meaning and relevance. It was easy to shed tears for America and the world, contemplating our follies and triumphs, past and present. It seemed that history had repeated itself. December 7 was now joined by September 11 as a date of infamy. What lessons should we learn, I wondered.  

Nearing the USS Arizona Memorial, I saw a large US flag and next to it the reassuring words "In God we Trust". This was the immortal America that I admired and loved, an America based on trust in God and dedication to a spiritual ideal.

Humbly entering the Memorial site, I was greeted by the sound of a Navy band playing "America the Beautiful."  So appropriate were the lines, especially: "America, America, God shed His Grace on Thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea" and "America, America, God mend Thy every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."

Lying in front of me was the splendor of Pearl Harbour, waters sparkling in glory, with mountains as a backdrop, and a perfectly clear blue sky above. Across the water a destroyer was moored and the US flag was flying half-mast atop the monument. This was battleship row, where the glory of the pre-war Pacific Fleet was sunk on that day of infamy. The harbour's deep waters still hold the USS Arizona, left in perpetuity as the final resting place for 1,100 naval men on board that day. The USS Arizona had been launched in 1915 in New York City. At that time a young Franklin Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy and President Woodrow Wilson was trying desperately to keep America out of what was becoming a world war.

Looking at the people around me, I saw Navy personnel in bright white uniforms with shiny medals. There were Japanese priests in flowing robes, carrying prayer beads. There were the Pearl Harbour veterans, besieged by servicemen and civilians, young and old, seeking autographs. And then there were the NYC firefighters in sharp, crisp uniforms that matched those of the military in brilliance. These New Yorkers were a poignant reminder of "the other," more recent, great American disaster.

Over the microphone the presiding officer, paid tribute to the fallen heroes. She said that 2,390 people had died as a result of the attack on December 7. Then she invited all present to take a flower from ushers to which was attached a slip of paper with a name of one of the victims. We then cast these flowers with papers attached into the waters of Pearl Harbour. One soul, Charles Houston Henz, who died aboard USS Oklahoma, was the name that adorned my slip of paper. As I threw the flower, with name attached, into the air to be propelled by the wind towards the water, I thought how the life of this serviceman had been thrown into the wind by events far greater than himself. He was a hapless victim of the abhorrent human practice called war. For all of us, as for him, this practice is cruel, barbarous and at best a necessary evil.

In the surprise attack that we now call Pearl Harbour, an imperial power bent on expansion through aggression had wiped out in two aerial waves a dozen ships, including six battleships—the glory of the US Pacific fleet—and strewn panic among the people on the ground.

Yet there were elements of nobility on this day of infamy, as emergency workers risked their lives to provide relief during this aerial holocaust and firefighters battled raging fires on ships while in imminent danger of huge explosions. There were also elements of nobility in the attackers. I think of the sacrifice of the Kamikaze pilots in Zeros and dive-bombers, who were prepared to end their lives for what they believed was a higher nobler cause. How ironic and yet appropriate that the leader of the raiding aircraft, one Masato Fuchida, who yelled "Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger!) to signal the success of the raid, eventually became a Protestant minister in the United States. After the war he wrote a book-God bless his Japanese heart- titled "No More Pearl Harbours!"

I reflected on the institution that we call the military. I have long harboured a relationship of "love and hate", of admiration and derision for the profession of arms. I admire the sense of self-sacrifice, the sense of duty and discipline, the quest for the body's fitness, physical preparedness and tenacity in the face of adversity. At the same time, I abhor the ends and means of war and of the military machine, the wild suffering and wanton destruction that war leaves in its bloody trail, the thoughtlessness and carelessness of fighters and, most of all, the appalling absence of humanity, not to speak of divinity. The tools of war, those weapons made ever more murderous by science, seem to me to be a detestable and massive misuse of human ingenuity and capacity. In war, our common humanity, our "oneness," is recklessly thrown out the window of the human conscience and replaced by selfish separation and the malicious dance of massive destruction. I repeat: war is at best a necessary evil. At worst it is "hell" on earth. For those people on the ships parked next to Ford Island on December 7 it was surely the latter. Can we not, I thought, settle human disputes without this barbaric institution called war?  Surely the time will come. This is, indeed, a goal worth dedicating a career, if not a life, to.

Irony, destiny or both, I wondered?  I find myself teaching soldiers for a living. I am a peacenik, a peace-lover, an erstwhile disciple of a great peace-leader and peace-dreamer. But fate placed me in a military university, surrounded by men and women in uniform. Perhaps, I thought, reform is best brought about from within. It is not by repressing the aggressive instinct but by transforming it that we can accomplish the abolition of war. War fighting can be replaced by peacekeeping, and weapons of war can be replaced by the tools of peace. The fog of war can be transformed into the clarity of peaceful action according to the rule of law, where military force is essential.  

Among the crowd of people at the Memorial, I saw a man with a T-shirt on which was boldly printed the words "Remember Pearl Harbour."  What do we need to remember, I wondered?  What are the lessons to be learned? There was more than just a commemoration of sacrifice and an abhorrence of war.

For me the greater lesson was so clear. The lessons of war and peace are the same whether it be applied to the 1930s or the 2000s. To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."  After the First World War, America had turned its back on the world. It abandoned the great vision, one of a world united for peace, that had grown out of its deepest tradition, democractic governance. Instead of leading a fledging League of Nations, America had pursued a policy of isolationism and carelessness. It never joined the League that it had done so much to create. It did nothing to help that body, the world 's first international body mandated to maintain peace, to deal with the slippery slide to World War II. In particular, America didn't work with the League to stop the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, China, in 1931, or the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. It did nothing to help the League mitigate the unjust pre-war conditions in Europe and the rising tide of fascism and aggression. With two oceans to protect it, Americans thought, what do we need to fear from turmoil in the rest of the world?

The rude awakening of Pearl Harbour shook America out of its stupor. It showed Americans to be wrong in their belief that their country was invulnerable to the problems of the rest of the world. Two large oceans are certainly not enough to protect the country from the forces that were astir in what we now call the "global village." December 7 and equally September 11, showed that dissatisfaction, injustice and evil in one part of the world affect all the world. Only a lasting commitment to peace everywhere can secure the peace at home. But America, in the 1930s, chose not to deal with the roots of conflict. Instead they allowed early German grievances to go unheeded and to let Japanese and German expansion go unchecked. The US dismissed the League, ironically founded by America's 28th president Woodrow Wilson, and it did virtually nothing to strengthen the rule of law and justice in the world, even though the legal foundation was the only one upon which its own peace could have been based.

Similarly in recent decades, America failed to show leadership in building a just and stronger world order. It has kept a financial stranglehold on the United Nations and held back other nations from advancing new initiatives.  It scorned the progressive proposals of other nations and statesmen, most notably Mikhail Gorbachev, for a stronger and more democratic United Nations.

The isolationism of the 1930s has been replaced in recent decades by an equally dangerous unilateralism. In fact, isolationism and the unilateralism are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. They have the same source:  a self-centered attitude that is ultimately self-defeating. Going it alone can never be a slogan. Genuine partnership in a democractic order under the rule of law and with trust in the peace of God is the true American way. The US must realize that it needs the United Nations as much as the United Nations needs the US.

There was a great revival of internationalism in the past. At the end of World War II, showing wisdom and magnanimity of heart, America became the torchbearer for a stronger international order after the devastation of war. It led in the creation of the United Nations, it led in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan and it led in the establishment of democracy in these countries and others. It realized its great mistake after the First World War in abandoning the Wilsonian vision. After the Second World War, the country was unified in a commitment to serve the cause of world peace. Even the republican senators, who had previously obstructed US entry into the League, voted overwhelmingly for unconditional acceptance of the UN Charter. Unfortunately, within a decade, this international idealism was quickly lost as America became embroiled in the Cold War. And when Russia came out of it, under the enlightened leadership of President Mikhail Gorbachev, the American government chose to stay in the darkness with an outmoded mindset.

What is needed now is a commitment to peace that is fearless and complete. Why can we not mobilize the resources and energy for peace that we can for war?  Should not a peace effort and resources unify and consume a nation more than a war? (It has always struck me as odd that the funds for foreign aid from all of the developed nations combined is a factor of five smaller than what the US alone spends on it military budget, over $300 billion annually [2001 figure, over $700 billion a decade later!]. The regular UN budget amounts to about half of one percent of that amount.) 

In matters of war and peace, as in disease and medicine, prevention is better than cure. A commitment to long-term prevention is indispensable, which means dealing with root causes on all levels. This requires a magnanimous heart and an unselfish approach on the personal, local, national and international level. The peace is achieved not by seeking the narrow self-interest but in recognizing the oneness of humanity. Recognizing that peace is indivisible is the basic tenet of an enlightened self-interest. We are all connected, whether we recognize it or not, whether we like it or not. The peace of the world is our peace.

As President Woodrow Wilson put it, "The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually." Unless America returns to its spiritual foundation, its physical well-being will remain under attack, either from outside or from within itself. Unless this great nation recognizes the sanctity of all life, not just American life, it will fail to achieve its God-ordained mission of uplifting humanity. The truths are clearly stated in the document that gave America its birth, that all human beings, not just Americans, "are created equal, that they are endowed by certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  When America places human security above national security, human rights above property rights, and humanity above nationality, then the world will truly "be made safe for democracy."  When the spiritual energy inherent in the American dream is released, America will be a great instrument for good and a leader for the human race.

Above all, I long for the day when America as a whole will recognize that the tragedies of the past century, exemplified by December 7 and September 11, should be catalysts for collective will to create a lasting peace. Hopefully, they will seem as incidents on the road of progress, tough lessons that served as stepping-stones for a brighter future. Then the lost lives and the great destruction would not have been in vain. By learning through wisdom, by recognizing the spiritual dimension of peace, the painful experiences of the past would be purified and illumined.

Human being can find their own peace and the collective peace by recognizing their own all-embracing spirituality.  Not only are virtue, morality and the principles of good government enhanced by spirituality, but also they are founded upon them.

On the bus, as I looked over Pearl Harbour, I saw a wondrous sight: the biggest, brightest, most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen. It stretched from horizon to horizon. As I admired it, I thought about the rainbow in the biblical story of Noah's ark. When the flood had ended, God showed people his sign of hope and promise in the form of a rainbow; a covenant was made between God and man.

I asked the bus driver whether it was common to see rainbows in Honolulu, expecting him to say that it was a rare event and thereby confirm for me the unique character of the day. Instead he said you could see rainbows every day. At first I was slightly dismayed with his answer, but I then realized that this was an even more fitting analogy. Every day we have the opportunity to move humanity forward, every day extraordinary blessings are offered to us, everyday we have blessings seen and unseen, appreciated and under-appreciated. If we look carefully we can see God's rainbow shining perpetually in the outer smile and inner meditation of humanity.

In the light of the smiles of human beings—children, women and men of all nations and races, the tragedies of December 7 and September 11 are illumined and humanity is set once again upon the road of spiritual progress. May God grant us the capacity to accept and revere our own spiritual nature, to seek the inner victory and spiritual glory, and to find our meaning in the Divine Light. This includes the special opportunities to experience moments of human history in far away lands, commemorating events that impacted us all whether we feel it directly or not. We must make an unceasing effort not to forget, not to reminisce only but use failures as stepping stones for success and the past as a way to build a brighter future.


– A. Walter Dorn, 30,000 ft above the Pacific Ocean, flying from Hawaii to Japan, 7–8 December 2001 (revised 13 August 2011)