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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Pearl Harbor still resonates

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: December 5, 2021, 6:02am

It seems so long ago, before most of us were born, and yet it remains fresh.

Perhaps that is because of the oil, still leaking from the wreckage of the USS Arizona at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The oil is visible in the water above the wreckage, a drop-by-drop reminder of one of the most momentous events in human history.

You know the story, of course.

The forces of Imperial Japan conducted a surprise air attack on the U.S. fleet at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — 80 years ago Tuesday. Nineteen U.S. ships were damaged or destroyed — although many of them eventually were returned to service. More than 2,400 U.S. lives were lost.

The USS Arizona has become the symbol of that attack, with a famous white memorial constructed above the ship and standing as the most-visited attraction in the state.

And then there is the oil.

Along with some 900 bodies that remain entombed in the Arizona — several hundred were recovered — officials estimate that about 500,000 gallons of oil remain in the ship, spread over some 200 compartments.

As Time magazine explained in 2019, “It’s not as simple as taking a hose and draining out the oil because emptying the ship of water and oil would likely result in removing the remains of the crew.”

So the oil remains, delivering a poignancy that I recently experienced for the first time, during my first trip to Oahu. So it remains, standing as a symbol both of what America once was and what it could be.

Because not far from the USS Arizona Memorial floats the USS Missouri, a battleship that was decommissioned in 1992 and that holds its own place in history.

While the Pearl Harbor attack precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II, the USS Missouri represents our nation’s victory. Japanese officials in 1945 boarded the ship and signed the surrender papers that officially concluded the conflict.

(As an aside, if you ever get a chance to tour a battleship, take it.)

Defeat and triumph are within sight of each other, bridged by an unfathomable four years that resulted in nearly 300,000 American deaths and a shared national commitment to victory.

“It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur said at the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri, “that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”

It is an interesting missive from a man who just a few years later really, really wanted to drop atomic bombs on North Korea and China. Yet it remains a profound declaration of the hope that followed the defeat of fascism and imperialism in World War II, a time when the United States suddenly, if briefly, found itself as the world’s only superpower.

We still are waiting for the realization of the hope MacArthur articulated. Goodness knows, tolerance and justice seem to be in short supply today. And in the intervening years, this nation has engaged only in fruitless wars of questionable morality.

But World War II stands as a shining example of American ingenuity, unity, resolve, skill and, indeed, power. Personally, I think we should tap into those traits to combat climate change. In World War II, the chaos and malaise of the Great Depression coalesced into the boldness and courage required to win the war; perhaps the malaise of current times will morph into what is necessary to battle climate change. But that is a discussion for another time.

For now, the focus is on Pearl Harbor and the 80th anniversary of an attack that transformed the world. It is an interesting anniversary, a remembrance of a defeat that presaged a future victory. And even for those of us far too young to remember or fully understand the occasion, it remains a remarkable moment in American history.