December 7, 2007
"May God make His face to shine upon them and grant them peace."
— Dedication plaque, USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor
the summer of 1941, the United States and Japan had each made a series of decisions and alliances regarding control of Asia and the Pacific that put them in opposing positions from which they could not retreat, could not fail without losing national respect. It was all about land, power, oil the usual ingredients of war. While the U.S. thought they were still in negotiations, Japan had already decided to attack, sending 33 warships, a fleet of aircraft carriers, and attack submarines to lead the charge, positioned 12 nautical miles from Pearl Harbor, on the placid island of Oahu. There, 185 vessels of the U.S. Pacific fleet lay calmly in the dawn hours of a fine Sunday morning. With the Japanese battle cry of "Tora! Tora! Tora!"(tora, or tiger, was a code for successful surprise torpedo attack), the battle would last only a couple of hours, destroying the U.S. Pacific fleet, and catapulting us into a war that would last another three and a half years.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my own feelings on our current war in Iraq and our presidential administration, I find myself drawn not to the drama of the Pearl Harbor battle, the surprise of the attacks, but to the stories of the men and women who served, not knowing that the dawning of another perfect day in paradise would go woefully wrong. Where my own thoughts on war are a twisted mix of confusion, the luxury of not having to fight, and an element of detachment that gives me the ability to espouse what I imagine are strong opinions, these people just served their country. They left their sweethearts and families, and showed up, because they believed it was the right thing to do.
The memorial is only a few miles from Schofield Barracks, the Army’s Oahu headquarters where a friend of mine is now stationed. After a morning at the USS Arizona memorial, we’ll tour the island with him and his family and at the end of the day, say farewell with the anticipation of held breath. He leaves for Iraq this week.
This friend, who I cannot name, joined the Army for the structure. He’d had his share of troubles; it was time for a different kind of life. He married his love in the backyard of his parents’ home, the day before boot camp began. The newlyweds had one night in a local hotel before his morning departure. At boot camp they discovered this soldier was a hell of a sharpshooter. Gave him awards; puffed up his ego. Over the years, he rose in rank and supported his Commander in Chief. He said that everyone knew the war was wrong, but that the President was his boss. "Our job is to clean up his mistakes." The soldier’s first Iraq deployment was 14 months of clearing towns with the infantry. I don’t want to know how those sniper skills came into play.
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For his second deployment, he says he won’t know for sure what his role will be, or where he’ll be sent, until they arrive in Kuwait, the staging area for soldiers en route to Iraq. He’ll be gone before Christmas, back sometime in mid-2009. He says that the war is wrong. In a situation eerily similar to our country’s position before Pearl Harbor, he says that we are in Iraq now to keep our President from losing face. He says he empathizes with the Iraqi people, that we ourselves would not appreciate anyone coming to our country to change our culture, to erase our way of life. He says if they did, he’d be the first to take up arms, meet them at the border, take them down. He says that in Iraq, he is only doing his job, not for his boss this time, but because he now believes that one member of every American family should serve in the military, to remain ever at the ready to protect their loved ones if need be. He believes that in his family, he is that person. He is doing this not just for the American cause in Iraq, but for his loved ones. He knows the risks; he’s taken them before.
The soldier tells me all this while holding his son, an infant butter ball with his mother’s quiet smile and the body of a miniature sumo wrestler. We are standing on Sunset Beach, on the north side of the island, watching surfers glide across slick turquoise waves trimmed in foam. He tosses his son in the air above him as if he were weightless, catches him falling in a cascade of giggles, plants soft lips over and over against his cheek. "He’ll be talking when I get back. He won’t know who I am. But I’m the only one who does this," the soldier says as he tosses his son skyward again. "He’ll remember me when I catch him."
Lisa Cilva Ward is a writer in Park City, Utah