Ours is not a military family. The distant ancestors were still stuck in Norway and Germany at the time of the Revolution and the Civil War: no sons of the Revolution or Confederate veterans among us. A great-grandfather missed the Great War by a year or two. With bad eyesight and reserved occupation, a grandfather stayed home for the Big War. Thankful at the time (but with some regret later on), father was spared Southeast Asia. In the era of the all-volunteer force, the son paid no call to Iraq and Afghanistan. He did, however, on behalf of his absent forebears, pay homage last month at Pearl Harbor.

Eighty years before December 7, 1941, America was just getting started with the Civil War. It was a country where the fate of compact theory and slavery were still in question, where most people were rural people, and where the railroad and the telegraph represented advanced technology. Eighty years after December 7, 1941, America seems even more removed from what happened in Hawaii early that Sunday morning. A list of material changes is easy to compile, but it is the subsequent moral change in the nation—the great unmooring from tradition—that makes it harder for us to appreciate those events. It takes effort. The son’s pilgrimage there suggests how, when we step literally onto the site of a great historical event, we step out of ourselves and into communion with a larger reality.

The conventional wisdom for the past half-century or so has been that historic places demand explanation or, in professional jargon, interpretation. We all know the drill: the short video, the guided tour, the audio program and the headphones, the themed trinkets in the gift shop. When well done, as it generally is at Pearl Harbor, this experience can be impressive, with much information conveyed. (The park rangers are especially impressive in their warning to visitors about cell phones: “Nine hundred men lie in the waters below so that you can be here today. Without them, you likely wouldn’t be here. So if you can’t spare twenty minutes off your phones to honor them, then I invite you to leave now and enjoy the exhibits on the mainland.”) But what if there is something more than information to convey? It is possible to visit a great art museum without looking at a label and still be deeply moved by the paintings. Burrow into the labels but fail to look up at the art, and you will not be moved at all. Where the art or, in this case, the artifacts are as stupendous as they are at Pearl Harbor, we sense that a great deal more than a list of facts is to be had here.

It was the great ships that struck the son upon arriving and leaving the memorial. It is the ships that loom largest in accounts of that day’s disaster, in which 2,403 servicemen and women were killed, 188 aircraft destroyed, and 18 ships sunk or damaged. Never, before or since, did the American Navy suffer such catastrophic loss. Today, two battleships form the centerpiece of the Pearl Harbor Memorial. To see them together—for one literally overlooks the other at the bottom of the harbor—is to see, at a glance, the war’s beginning and its end. USS Arizona (capital ships back then were named after states of the Union) was a World War I–era super-dreadnought launched in 1915. The ship saw no action in that war, though she escorted President Wilson to France for the peace conference in 1919. She spent most of her life in the Pacific where, in 1932, she participated in a fleet exercise that had enemy planes attacking Pearl Harbor on a Sunday. Nine years later, on December 7, the attack was no drill. A direct bomb that hit Arizona’s funnel exploded her forward magazines. As recorded in one of the first and most dramatic photographs of the war, the Arizona erupted like a volcano, broke in two, and capsized. She took with her over a thousand of her crew. Oil from her bunkers still seeps to the surface.

The Arizona was old and close to obsolete. Her bombing marked the war’s beginning for America. The great ship that guards her today, from across a short reach of water, witnessed the war’s end: on the deck of USS Missouri, docked in Tokyo Bay, Japan signed the instrument of surrender on September 2, 1945. Launched only in 1944 and with a speed of over thirty-two knots, the Missouri went on to escort the fast-carrier task forces that became the Navy’s primary means of projecting power and getting at the enemy across vast distances. It was that very enemy, the Japanese, who at Pearl Harbor first demonstrated the fatal vulnerability of the old order of capital ships, battlewagons like the Arizona and even the Missouri, to the new instrument of naval power: the aircraft carrier. The lesson stuck. The Missouri and her three consorts of the Iowa class were to be the last battleships, superseded over the next half-century by the immense aircraft carriers that remain at the heart of today’s battlegroups. We have learned recently that these great ships are now themselves vulnerable to Chinese missiles, whose thousand-mile range exceeds that of the carriers’ attack aircraft. In the carrier’s place, the nuclear-armed and -powered submarine, seldom seen on the surface, has become the last capital ship. 

Pearl Harbor contains and communicates all of this in a single visit. Stand on the Arizona Memorial, over the very spot where the great ship sank into the mud with nearly a thousand Americans, some still entombed there. Regard her great rusting gun turret, just breaking the surface, and the mighty Missouri riding at anchor nearby. The scene asks for no interpretation but demands our attentiveness and preparation.

These things are as reported to me by my son, who is the son in this piece, for I have never been to Pearl Harbor. Should I one day be able to pay reverence there with him, on the very spot, I will try to be prepared. On December 7 eighty years ago America was not, which is the sad lesson of it all. For now, five thousand miles away from these scenes, I am content with a distant salute. For the day, I shall fly the World War II–vintage, forty-eight star flag passed down to me by my grandfather who was too young for one war and too old for another. It is the same ensign that was raised the morning of December 7 on the Arizona. One day, it will go to my son. 

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