Wednesday, December 7, 2011

War and Peace

We'll be hearing a lot today about war and peace.

Mostly war, I suppose, and that is understandable. Today is, after all, the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the event that literally pushed the United States into World War II although one could argue that it had been getting more and more involved in the conflict in the months leading up to the attack.

It is an event that still resonates with people of my parents' generation. They were children when the attack occurred, and, although my mother has been gone for many years now, I remember her telling me of the peaceful Sunday afternoon that suddenly changed when the news came across the radio that Pearl Harbor had been the victim of a sneak attack.

It is hard for me to imagine anyone going through the American education system and not hearing a recording of FDR's famous speech to Congress, when he said that Dec. 7, 1941 was a "date which will live in infamy."

That date has certainly lived on in people's memories.

For me, today brings back memories of 20 years ago when I was working for a small daily newspaper, and I participated in the production of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of that attack. For weeks, we solicited 1940s era photos of local residents, both living and dead, who served their country — and we published articles about many of them and their experiences.

That project coincided with my graduation from graduate school. A week later, I was going to receive my master's degree. There were many things demanding my time and attention.

It was a grueling period in my journalism career, to be sure. I had no idea there were so many WWII veterans in the county where I was living — until we took on that project.

Most of them were living then. Far fewer are apt to be living today — and it does make me wonder when we will stop observing Pearl Harbor Day in the kind of semi–official way that we have in recent years. It seems we are moving in that direction with the attrition of people who still remember that day.

That happens with some of history's significant dates. So much time goes by and the people who remember the event pass away, and we are left with holidays and/or anniversaries for which we must be reminded the origin.

Take Veterans Day. It used to be called Armistice Day, which was the observation of the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Hostilities in that conflict ended in 1918, more than 90 years ago. The last time I recall anyone mentioning that event was when I studied history in high school — and my memory is that my history teacher really didn't spend much time on it.

To be sure, the outcome of World War I wasn't very popular in Germany, which paid a heavy price — and that could be said to have played a role in the eventual rise to power of the Nazis in the 1930s. Kinda depends on one's interpretations of things.

Chronologically, though, it is beyond dispute that anyone who was old enough to serve in that war would have to be around 110 years old today. There are a few of those left in the entire world, but not many. Armistice Day long ago lost its meaning as the World War I generation dwindled — so today it is known by the more generic designation of Veterans Day.

Which is not to be confused with Memorial Day. That is a completely different holiday in a completely different time of year — but it does have a similar history.

It started out as Decoration Day, a day for honoring those who died during the Civil War. I don't think there is a particular anniversary connected with it; the graves of Confederate soldiers were decorated in several Southern cities during the war and the practice simply continued after it ended.

Obviously, no one who was alive in the mid–19th century is still living — so there is no one for whom Decoration Day has any meaning. We continue to observe it, though, under the more generic name of Memorial Day.

The purpose evolved to include remembering those who fought in all wars, not just the Civil War, and in recent years it has expanded to include memories of anyone who is no longer living, even if that person didn't serve in the military.

George Carlin used to point out that sports like football that tend to emulate war are played in facilities that use such generic names as War Memorial Stadium or Soldier Field. It is part of the competitive nature of sports, I suppose, that the places where these games are played should bear names that conjure violent images — even though a sport will never be as violent as war.

But not everything that happened on Dec. 7 has been violent.

Sometimes there has been peace and hope.

On this day in 1972, for example, Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon, was launched. As they left the earth and began making their way to the moon, the crew looked back and took a picture of the earth that is known today as the "Blue Marble."

Seen from that vantage point, the blue marble looks so peaceful, just floating along in the black velvet of space. One would never guess that so much turmoil exists on the surface of that marble, that there is savagery loose upon the land capable of causing great pain to millions without the slightest hint of remorse.

Yet the image of the blue marble sparks in many of us that wish for peace on earth and good will to men.

Not a bad thought to keep in mind during the Christmas season.

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