A few months ago some friends and I visited the Pearl Harbor National Memorial complex in Honolulu, Hawai’i. The primary exhibits were designed (or deigned, I should say, for the complex was multi-layered, as we shall see) to honor those in the military that lost their lives in the surprise attack on the U.S. Navy and Air Force at Pearl Harbor and other parts of Oahu and the Hawaiian islands by the Japanese Air Force on December 7, 1941. The attack was pre-emptive on the part of the Japanese government, which hoped to gain a military advantage in the Pacific Ocean by knocking out the U.S. naval forces headquartered in Hawai’i and thereby increase their ability to gain more control of the economic resources in eastern Asia. Like most of the world at the time, and perhaps worse off than most, Japan was at the end of a decade of a terrible economic depression, and its government was attempting to get out of it through the twin stimuli of war and economics.
The first exhibit which our group attended was required viewing of a film giving an overview of the attack on Pearl Harbor and what we would see on the rest of the tour. Along with about 150 other people, we were shuffled into a small theater. Signs directed us to stay quiet, honor the dead, and understand the tragedy. The use of cell phones was taboo, of course. The film emphasized the messages from the signs. Especially pointed was the admonishment to not talk when we were viewing certain parts of the upcoming tour of the memorials, such as the sunken battleships. The alleged reason was to honor the dead military men and women, but in fact, the entire tour was carefully orchestrated to control the narrative and the emotional response to the memorials and the events on that fateful day in 1941.
As the film started and the sponsors of the film were shown on the big screen, I was surprised to see listed a litany of some of the largest “defense” contractors in the world, including Northrup Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and others. I was not surprised to see of their involvement in the making of the memorial, but rather at the audacity that they would consent to listing their names there. The CEO’s and board members of these international, multi-billion dollar corporations were some of the biggest proponents of entering World War II, as well as some of the biggest profit-makers as a result of the U.S. involvement in that war and many others afterwards. That they would proudly show their names in a film honoring the innocent victims of a war that they helped both to create and profit from shows an arrogance almost unbelievable.
Given this heads up about what this memorial tour was going to be all about, I decided to step back and view it from the producers’ point of view. I noticed that the amount of killed Marines, sailors, pilots, and civilians was told to us multiple times. Also, over and over again we were told to honor the dead. The boat tour narrator told how the sailors were burned alive from the gas and oil burning on the harbor waters or trapped underwater in the sunken battleships. As mentioned earlier, there were times when we were told to not talk. It was obvious to me that the tour was designed to keep an emotional focus on the innocent victims and to not think about the larger picture of the causes of war, the profits made from wars, and the senseless, greedy involvement in wars in first place. Only in one small, out of the way display did the memorial producers admit a larger perspective by mentioning that much of Japan’s economic depression was caused by the control of resources in east Asia by powerful European countries and the United States.
As it turned out, the directive by the film- and memorial-makers to “understand the tragedy” had little to do with understanding the larger picture of the causes of war, economic depressions, or profit-making from war. Instead, because of the manipulation of our emotions into grief, fear, and anger, we ignored those larger questions and only “understood” the events from the perspective of the victims.
This point hit home to me when I mentioned to one friend in our group of my perceptions of how the memorial tour was more of a political act designed to make us ignore the larger, more corrupt and nefarious, aspects of war-making. My friend, sensitive to the tragedy of the attacked victims and their families and feeling fairly overwhelmed by it all, admonished me for not being compassionate, for “being political.” And that is when I realized that the memorial producers’ mission had been accomplished – manipulate the citizenry’s emotions so that we do not question the political motives behind war, and in fact, we deem such conversations about the larger picture of war as unseemly and insensitive. And so the conversations that we as a country need so badly to examine the motives behind war-making never happen. The conversations that we need to ensure that senseless wars stop or never occur in the first place do not occur.
I see this manipulation of our emotions and our national narratives about war often in the media, by legislators, and by the wealthy citizens who profit from war-making. Whenever we sing the Star-Spangled Banner, which is basically a war cry, at sport and other events, we are buying into the narrative that war is all about brave people trying to gain their freedom. Calling veterans “heroes” instead of victims of greedy war-makers manipulate us into thinking our soldiers and sailors are fighting to keep us safe or promoting democracy in the world, when in fact they are doing the untold bidding of greedy war profiteers.
There is no doubt that our fallen, burned, drowned, shot, wounded, tormented, and maimed soldiers and sailors deserve to be honored, respected, and assisted to the fullest extent. And there is no doubt that they are heroes in their daily acts of bravery and moral dilemmas in which they find themselves. But let’s not forget that our government, and the governments of most other nations, is not sending our troops overseas to ensure democracy or “our way of life,” but rather because there are mineral, military, environmental, and human resources to be taken and controlled so that a very few wealthy citizens can maintain their power, control, and wealth. Our veterans are as much victims of a political economic system gone bad as they are heroes.