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December 7th

December 7, 2009, 12:26 pm

Battleship Row, 7 December 1941

On this day on December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” the American naval base on Oahu at Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. Pearl Harbor has become iconic though sometimes people who shouldn’t have have nonetheless forgotten the exact date.

There are a substantial number of remembrances across the web today, including here, here, here (photos), and here.

USS Maine

I don’t aim to repeat that with my post. What I am interested in on this anniversary is the way in which the United States memorializes its disasters. America has a series of tragic dates, which are often remembered better than the victories. Pearl Harbor–I think–is more familiar than Midway (though perhaps not D-Day). The Maine is remembered more than any battle in the Spanish-American War. The Alamo still resonates in a way that no victory of either the Texas Revolution or the Mexican-American War does. The burning of Washington rivals Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans by way of remembering the War of 1812. For the American Revolution, Valley Forge is as legendary as Yorktown. The Civil War is somewhat the exception, with Gettysburg–a victory for the United States–dominating all other events.

Fascinating also is the way in which the most recent of these–9/11 and Pearl Harbor–have become inextricably linked to their date. December 7 and September 11th have come to be an identifying label for both events. They have managed this in a way that not even July 4th can duplicate, being on the wrong day, and all.

The British do something similar with Dunkirk, the Somme, and the “Black Week” of the Boer War, among others. The British “lose every battle but the last one,” an epigraphic way of universalizing the obsession with defeat, so perhaps this is not particularly American behavior. Those events are linked to dates as well, though not quite as specifically as Pearl and 9/11: 1940 for Dunkirk, 1 July 1916 for the Somme (ignoring that the battle went on for months), the name itself for the “Black Week.”

I don’t have a reason why this might be, or a conclusion about what such a fixation means, but it strikes me nonetheless that it is odd that such a strong strain of American historical memory is taken up obsessing about such catastrophes: defeat from the jaws of victory, indeed.

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