There’s a common narrative about the meaning of what happened in Hawaii 75 years ago this past week. It sounds something like this. The forces of evil, previously growing unchecked in their pursuit to conquer the world, had finally awoken a sleeping giant. And though they dealt her a vicious blow, they sealed their doomed fates that morning. The forces of the free people of the world answered back and with a clear and decisive victory for good in an inarguable statement of the strength of moral and just authority.
It’s not a bad narrative. And it’s not entirely untrue. For a little while, those that perpetrated the injustice of pitching the globe into a war that would kill 60 million men and women did suffer harsh and near final consequence. But both our greatness and their destruction were perhaps less permanent than any of us like to admit. Germany and Japan, a within the span of two generations are now the third and fourth largest economies in the world. Their people enjoy a stability and quality of life reserved for a handful of societies in human history. And we Americans, the victors, have found ourselves tangled in near constant war and have enjoyed the spoils of victory much differently than perhaps we would have thought.
A few centuries ago, before he became a musical and then a political debate, Alexander Hamilton pointed to the true consequence of Pearl Harbor, a century and a half before it happened. As he urged the American people towards union and the acceptance of the newly created Constitution, Hamilton pointed to the poor state of Europe after centuries of war and division.
“The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken; of battles that decide nothing; of retreats more beneficial than victories; of much effort and little acquisition.”
Hamilton dreamed of a union unlike Europe, so vast and sturdy that we would be free from threat of external incursions. And he was right. For 150 years, the only material damage ever dealt to us was by our own hand in the bloody war against ourselves to end slavery. But Hamilton could never have dreamed of a world where huge ships could travel the Pacific in a week’s time and launch things called airplanes to destroy an entire fleet of ships in an hour. And he could never in his wildest dreams imagined atomic energy and the horrors of nuclear warfare that ultimately answered them. Pearl Harbor was the moment in time when the world shrunk. And thereafter, no one was ever too big or too united to be free from threat. Pearl Harbor was a reckoning that forever more, anything worth owning was to be owned by someone with the means to defend it.
The lesson of the last 75 years, if we take the time to complete the narrative of what Pearl Harbor means, is one where we’ve realized Hamilton’s vision in painful ways. Where America has fought battles that decide nothing. Where our retreats have been more beneficial than our victories. Where we have exerted much effort with little acquisition.
The world has changed. And the threats have changed with it. Small groups of men with conviction can inflict great injury on world powers. Foreign entities can encroach through cyberspace to impact sacred instruments of democracy. These threats are real and dangerous. But they are very different. And we appear to be content to respond to them with the weapons of centuries past-generals.
Be careful when you respond to different problems with the same answer. National security in 2016 is perhaps not as dependent on military strength as it once was. I say this as someone who spent most of his adult life in the service of arms. I appreciate the notion of service and the benefits of military strength. But we should have learned over the last 75 years that fighting ideas or economic systems with armies, generally just kills our young men and women and not the ideas. The world is smaller now than it’s ever been. And I hope we’re better prepared for that then we’ve shown these last 75 years.