Monday, December 7, 2015

World War II was a lot more real when I was growing up

Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean?

This year marks the 70th anniversary since the end of the Second World War. And of course today is December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, commemorating 74 years since the Japanese sneak attack on U.S. Navy installations in Hawaii. That's the event that brought the U.S. into the war and kept it there until the very end.

When I was a kid, there were WWII veterans all over the place. They're still with us, but there are a lot fewer of them every day, and the ones who are left are older and, well, quieter, I guess.

The WWII vets I knew often told stories about their experiences when I was growing up. Or at least the ones who didn't mind talking about their service did. Others had such harrowing memories of combat that they never discussed them.

Mine is the last generation of people that had dads who fought in the war. And even then I'm really at the tail end of that class. My dad entered the Army in 1946, a year after the war officially ended, and served in the Occupation Army of Japan. And he was older than most of my friends' dads.

So my experience of the war was more third-hand than anything else. But even in the 1970s and 80s, you heard about the war more than you do now. Which is understandable, because it's slowly fading into a more distant past. We'll have WWII vets around for many more years, but their numbers will drop precipitously as time goes on. They already have, really.

I know this partly because I am particularly interested in the First World War, and the last few veterans of that conflict died out in the past five years or so. (This Wikipedia article provides a good summary.) I've read and studied so much about "the Great War" for so many years that it has become somewhat personal to me, even though I obviously don't know anyone who fought in it.

So when the last WWI veterans passed in the early part of this decade, I felt like that really shut the door on an era of history. The First World War brought about a wealth of technological advances, but it was still in some ways very much a 19th-century war, with horsed cavalry and bright uniforms (early on, at least) and things we associate more with the Civil War than "modern" military operations.

Those 100-plus-year-old First World War vets were our last direct and human links to one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of mankind. Their deaths meant we could only relate to that war through the written and recorded word.

And the same will one day soon be true of the Second World War. It's a conflict whose flame will burn brighter and longer here in the U.S. simply because we were so much more deeply involved in it, but eventually those living, breathing connections to this momentous historic event will be gone.

And I guess that makes me sad. Especially on Pearl Harbor Day, when our country was finally awakened from the blissfully ignorant thought that maybe we can just keep ourselves out of foreign conflicts and "Those People" will simply leave us alone.

It's not so much history that repeats itself, folks, as the lessons of history.

Here's wishing a blessed Pearl Harbor Day to those men and women who lived through it and are still around to talk about it.

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