The Human Spirit: Visiting Pearl Harbor
August 05, 2011
Barbara Sofer , THE
How well we in Israel know the dangers of overconfidence, and
the failure to gauge the enemy's determination.
Of course I already knew the basics. On a quiet Sunday morning,
December 7, 1941, the Imperial Army of Japan attacked the United States
of America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan, and
the US entered World War II.
I wasn’t familiar with the details, and have been mulling over the lessons
of a recent visit to Pearl Harbor in the somber nine days before Tisha
I was invited to Honolulu to speak about Israel. There was a variety of
audiences, including public radio. Yes, there are Jews in Hawaii – an
estimated 10,000. The 50th state’s former governor Linda Lingle was Jewish,
as is the current deputy governor, Brian Schatz. And yes, the Jews of
Hawaii are concerned about Israel. I’m always moved by how attached our
brethren in far-flung Jewish communities are to Israel, and you don’t
get much farther flung than Hawaii. Indeed, one of the synagogues in Honolulu
is called Sof Maarav, from the famous Yehuda Halevy poem, “My heart is
in the east, but I am in sof ma’arav” – the uttermost west – 12
time zones from Jerusalem, and because there’s no daylight saving time,
13 hours’ time difference.
The Hawaiian reputation for hospitality is well-deserved: From the moment
I arrive I am draped in flowers. Each lei is fashioned from 80 orchids.
My hosts take me to watch the sunset at Waikiki Beach, to see President
Barack Obama’s birth hospital and apartment block, and to the Pearl Harbor
National Historical Site.
Over a million and a half adults and schoolchildren visit Pearl Harbor
and the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument every year, including
many Japanese tourists. Displays of authentic WWII aircraft, ships and
a submarine are interspersed with audiovisual material illustrating the
period. The highlight of the visit is a short sail to the Memorial to
the Fallen, near the USS Arizona, which still lies sunken in the
On the day of infamy, as FDR called it, 353 Japanese aircraft succeeded
in reaching Pearl Harbor. They dropped specially fitted bombs that could
pierce the decks of supposedly impenetrable battleships, and launched
torpedoes from the air. Two thousand four hundred soldiers and civilians
were killed, and Battleship Row of the American fleet was decimated; 1,177
servicemen were killed on the Arizona, to which 37 sets of brothers
had been assigned. Most of the bodies are still on the ship, joined by
those of survivors who until today choose the Arizona as their
final resting place.
The operative question throughout the somber visit is, of course, how
the US could have been caught unprepared.
The US fleet had been positioned in Hawaii to demonstrate American muscle
as a deterrent to Japanese expansionism. But the museum narrative suggests
that from the Japanese point of view, the oil embargo America had placed
on Japan was the equivalent of a declaration of war. An astute intelligence
report submitted to both the US Army and Navy prior to December 7 anticipated
a drastic action on the part of the Japanese. It even outlined the possibility
of an airborne attack, detailing the probable choice of a Sunday or holiday
and the approach from the north. It wasn’t taken seriously. The US relied
instead on a newly installed aerial warning system – radar – and didn’t
conduct rigorous sky patrols.
For the past seven decades, the mistakes made at Pearl Harbor have been
endlessly reviewed. Japan’s Zero bombers were poorly thought of. The 160,000
Japanese Hawaiians were considered a greater threat than the Japanese
in Japan. When the first wave of Japanese planes approached, the radar
did indeed pick them up, but no attention was paid because a delivery
of American planes was expected. A Japanese submarine caught entering
Pearl Harbor wasn’t recognized as part of an integrated attack.
Military decision-makers simply couldn’t understand the thinking of the
Japanese, nor appreciate their ingenuity. Overconfidence colored the decision-making
process. And as we all know, once you’ve made up your mind, new evidence
that contradicts your beliefs is so uncomfortable that we usually reject
it. The term is cognitive dissonance.
Today, visitors to Pearl Harbor must surrender purses and bags at the
gate – a puzzling security regulation that dates from the second surprise
attack on the US, on September 11, 2001. My hosts pay $3 to store my purse
while I am allowed to carry my camera and phone.
The attack on the Twin Towers, the 10th anniversary of which we are marking
soon, is another example of poor comprehension of the ideology, intent
and ingenuity of an enemy. Here, too, intelligence went against conventional
thinking, and nearly 3,000 men and women were murdered.
How well we in Israel know the dangers of overconfidence, and the failure
to gauge the enemy’s determination. The inability to foresee the Yom Kippur
War is the most blatant example, but there have been many others, like
boasting that Saddam Hussein’s missiles were so inexact they would never
hit Tel Aviv, or sending commandos onto the Mavi Marmara armed
with paint guns. To say nothing of our failure in public relations.
On the way back from Pearl Harbor, my hosts drive me near a hillside tea
house from which a spy on the top floor, using simple binoculars, was
able to see the entire military base. While locals were drinking tea,
daily reports on how the planes were parked and the carriers were docked
were dispatched to the enemy.
The Japanese also miscalculated. They didn’t realize that the attack would
unify the American people in their readiness to go to war.
These days of Av, in which we remember the destruction of our two Temples
in Jerusalem and the calamities of modern history, should be an antidote
to cocksureness. Our enemies always have their binoculars turned toward
us. Our domestic concerns, legitimate though they are, cannot distract
us from keeping watch at this unstable time in the Middle East.