Today marks the 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Years later, the nation still mourns this tragic event. President Roosevelt correctly called it a day that will live in infamy.
The event continues to lead us to questions about how an attack like this could happen. After all, the involved nations had friction for years leading up to the event, and the US Navy even trained for war with Japan for the previous 20 years. But a study of other surprise attacks throughout history suggest that surprise isn’t a conspiracy theory to draw the nation into war. They actually happen more often than is commonly thought, and it reinforces why and how America should guard against the next one.
The biggest factor that helps surprise attacks happen is the idea of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. In the story the boy made so many false alarms that when the wolf actually attacked, nobody believed him. In early December of 1941, intelligence officials received reports that precisely detailed the impending Japanese attack. But the volumes of reports that intelligence services received at the time led to a good deal of chaff and useless intel that obscured the accurate intelligence.
It is easy to notice the correct reports after the fact, but it was difficult to identify them at the time, especially since the US Navy had already issued several alarms in the previous months. The numerous false alarms made the attack a stunning surprise from Japanese forces.
We can honor the dead at Pearl Harbor by being prepared and vigilant in guarding against the next attack.
Before this, France and England declared war on Germany when they invaded Poland in the fall of 1939. During the winter, so little happened between the belligerents that they called this period the “phony war.” By the following fall, the Germans unleashed the devastating Blitz against Britain and the French saw their neighbors relentlessly attacked.
Then, the French experienced a devastating surprise attack from the Germans. The Germans delayed their invasion of France several times while the high command tinkered with the details. Thus, when the Germans were ready to invade, there had been so many false starts that most of the German units needed for the attack were already in place. The French misread the relatively small troop movements as insignificant, disregarded the signs of an impending attack, and six weeks later Paris fell.
Considering what leads to a surprise attack, and given the continuing threats from a nuclear North Korea, an aggressive China and Russia, and numerous terrorist attacks, it is important for the US to remain vigilant. Since 1949, China has fought preemptive, offensive wars with each of their neighbors. A missile strike at the US fleet based in Japan remains a distinct possibility.
The North Korean regime has shown little ability to operate within traditional international frameworks, which means the Cold War policy that contained and deterred a nuclear Russia doesn’t apply to them. And, despite Mitt Romney being mocked for listing Russia as a geopolitical threat, they have shown a tendency to use aggressive and subversive action with both traditional and nontraditional soldiers (such as cyber units) to seize or undermine territory stretching from the Crimean peninsula to Montenegro.
At the Gettysburg battlefield, President Lincoln said that the best way to honor the dead is to most highly resolve that the dead should not have died in vain. We can honor the dead at Pearl Harbor by being prepared and vigilant in guarding against the next attack. The disturbances in the world can’t become background noise, but must be taken seriously every time.