It was a normal Sunday morning for my grandfather, an officer in the US Army. He was getting ready to play his weekly round of golf, an experience which, while blissful enough on its own, was accented by the warm December sun and calming breeze of the South Pacific.
As he prepared to leave, my grandmother asked him why planes were flying over on a Sunday, assuming it was a training exercise. My grandfather looked out the window and said “those aren’t American planes,” before putting my grandmother under the bed (or in the closet, depending on who you ask) and running outside. It was December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor, and the day that began with such blissful innocence would end in brutal infamy.
That day shattered the notion of American invincibility in the most vivid and palpable way. It changed the very conception of what it meant to be an American because it made people realize that we live in a world that is sometimes dominated by the perverse influence of intolerance and totalitarianism. It thrust the United States into a war that was not its own and forever changed the dynamics of a world torn asunder and a country opposed to tyranny.
When I think about this moment in time, I think about the world as it stands today. G.K. Chesterton once said “The modern man is more like a traveler who has forgotten the name of his destination, and has to go back whence he came, even to find out where he is going.”
Since World War II, the world has become an even more complicated place. Threats to American security have increased exponentially and come not only from charismatic tyrants leading large nation states, but also from individuals or small groups bent on causing as much harm as possible. We fear “terror,” which is more an existential state of mind than a physical enemy and we fear the impact of new technologies in the wrong hands.
But that has not stopped the United States from being a bastion of freedom and Democracy around the world. I have doubts about the strategic imperative of maintaining troop levels in Afghanistan or Iraq and the broader mission goals as they stand today, but I don’t doubt the force of conviction that led to our involvement.
The recent situation in Syria, however, has brought the question of America’s role in the world back into question. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been slaughtering his people for months now, but the recent intelligence reports of the Syrian military being armed with chemical weapons take the situation to a whole new level.
There are various factors in determining the level of intervention in a conflict such as this. President Obama intervened in Libya in part because the United States was asked to by NATO and the Arab League. Conversely, President Clinton chose not to intervene in Rwanda in the 1990s because there was little in the way of American interest, but he called this the greatest failure of his presidency.
There is no specific criteria for when the United States should or should not enter a conflict (I should note that by “enter” I don’t necessarily mean sending American troops into the region). But I think on a day like today, when we remember the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, we should also remember what Americans of that Greatest Generation fought and died for.
Yes, it took an attack on American soil to get us into the conflict, but once we entered, we fought the evils of Communism, Fascism, and Totalitarianism. We protected the human rights of people around the world and we did for no selfish purpose whatsoever. It should also be noted that we helped pay to rebuild areas in Europe that were destroyed during the war.
On a day when we honor the service and sacrifice of the American armed forces, particularly on that infamous day, we should also return to whence we came so that we can remember where we’re going. We should remember what it means to be American in a smaller and smaller world. And, remembering full well our faults, we should continue in our goal to make the world a safer place.
Does that mean we should intervene in Syria or should have in Rwanda or the next conflict that will invariably arise? Not necessarily. But when we remember a day like December 7th, we should reflect anew on the American ethos and not turn a blind eye to the suffering of the world.