Today is the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, for many of us our minds are elsewhere this week as COVID continues to ravage the nation.
In fact, statistically we are well past the point where each day represents a larger death toll than that of some of the deadliest days of American history, including Pearl Harbor:
It’s not just Pearl Harbor, either. On December 2nd, more Americans died of COVID than from enemy fire during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. At least 53 days have been deadlier than April 15th, 1912, on which morning the Titanic sank. And if current trends continue, the IHME projects that the United States will hit 2,971 deaths on January 13, 2021, which would make it deadlier than any single day during the Civil War, with the exception of the Battle of Antietam.
While these numbers are accurate and striking, they need to be properly contextualized. When my grandpa woke up on the morning of December 7th, 1941, neither he nor anyone else under the Stars and Stripes knew that a war was going to break out before lunchtime. No one on the USS Arizona could have guessed that their ship would explode within a couple hours, bathing hundreds aboard in burning fuel and showering them with white hot shards of metal. None of the other American ships or planes or sailors or soldiers had that quiet Sunday circled on their calendars in bold red ink as a day that would live forever in infamy.
Meanwhile, thousands will die today, thousands more will die tomorrow, and thousands more the next day, and so on, and so on, and probably through Christmas. In all probability, the next few months will make clear that our annus horribilis did not begin on January 1st, 2020, but on St. Patrick’s Day. By the time we slice into our corned beef this coming spring, half a million Americans may be dead.
To be sure, no one, not even the most stubborn anti-maskers or the most oblivious and aggressive huggers, deserves to die from this awful disease. But it is certain that no one woke up this morning without having had the opportunity to learn about and understand the risks associated with contracting COVID. Many people, especially front-line health care workers, emergency responders, and even fast food and grocery workers, have little choice over whether or not they will contract it because their jobs put them into regular contact with those who already have it. For the rest of us, however, we knew what was coming, even if we did not want to acknowledge the coming tsunami of sickness. Imagine if FDR had know about the Japanese sneak attack all along (and to be clear, no, he did not), from the planning meetings that summer to the Task Force’s launch on November 26th. Would we have ever forgiven him for sitting idly by in the White House, thinking that sooner or later a stray sub or destroyer would happen upon the convoy and scare it away, like a spider retreating through a crack in the wall? Probably not.
But it’s a moot point. FDR did not see the attack coming, and while a few people in the War Department had their suspicions, the sailors, soldiers, and Marines in Hawaii were none the wiser. And even if they knew – some, like grandpa, suspected that a war was going to start soon, but assumed that both sides would have the common courtesy to declare it first – then what was their alternative? Should they desert and hide out someplace? Sleep with a gun under their pillow? Spend all their nights off-ship and on land? Not even that was a guarantee for safety – while most of the USS Arizona’s survivors spent the previous night in town or in the barracks on Ford Island, both men from the Chew who died had slept elsewhere and were caught in a bomb blast while trying to put out fires aboard the USS Pennsylvania. The common denominator for most of those who were caught by surprise that morning was that they chose to be there. While they did not sign their enlistment papers with the foreknowledge of this attack, they also knew that to some extent they did not know what they were signing up for, so to speak. Their oaths and their duty kept them where they least needed to be when the war broke out.
Another thought comes to mind when I reflect on another deadly day in American history that has been frequently invoked in comparison with the daily COVID death tolls: September 11th. When I compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor over a year ago, I argued that Americans more effectively (if not more equitably) processed their anger following the latter than they did after the former, and that as a result September 11th has festered like an open wound over the past two decades. Yet the most obvious trait that the two events have in common is also the most powerful: both days delivered nothing less than a sudden, profound, and existential shock to the American people that resulted in a wave of patriotic fervor and a newfound appreciation for the fact that no nation is immune to exogenous violence. While one could argue that both events represented the inevitable culmination of American diplomatic and military interventions elsewhere in the world, Americans writ large did not spend a great deal of time worrying about those policies or their repercussions in either case. As I argued last year, shock value does not merely characterize an event. It is foundational to understanding that event’s legacy and memory in history. After all, the JFK Assassination was also a shocking, transformative event whose effects continue to ripple into the present, but if judged by its death toll alone it would barely make the front page in many American newspapers in 1963, or even today.
COVID, on the other hand, is no longer shocking. It is more like a bad roommate than a late-night burglar: its presence does not come as a surprise. Instead, it malevolently leeches away our energy, health, and happiness, and makes us aware of its presence even when we are thinking about other things. COVID is simply exhausting. It is wearing away at us, and even though a vaccine may only be weeks away, each day until that happens is a challenging slog.
One of the benefits of writing is that it helps us work though what we are thinking. And as I look back on what I’ve written so far, it seems like what began as a post asking readers not to underestimate the Pearl Harbor attack with respect to daily death tolls is turning into something else: a plea to understand what we are going through now on its own terms. On the one hand, Pearl Harbor was a bad day in American history. An event that mostly occurred within the span of a couple of hours cast a long, dark shadow over the following years and decades. The death toll that day was certainly and inarguably tragic, but the costs were much higher. Tens of thousands of others were injured or scarred in less obvious ways, and countless Americans back home waited weeks with stones in their stomachs waiting for news about their loved ones. As for my grandfather, who could not simply unsee the Arizona exploding a few hundred yards away, memories of the attack stalked him for the rest of his life. This multifaceted and terrible toll transcends and multiplies exponentially the sorrowful calculus baked into that four-digit number we see in the above tweet.
On the other hand, the same logic applies to the drumbeat of COVID daily deaths we see in the newspapers. Too many Americans today continue to dismiss those numbers, playing fast and loose with peoples’ lives and their true impact on those around them by speciously seizing on arbitrary and misleading statistics, like the fact that it “only” kills 1% of infected victims, or that on most days heart disease kills more people. How inured are we to sickness and premature death to not empathize with the millions of people in our own country who not only grieve lost loved ones, but who in most cases did not get to say goodbye, or even bury them? What about the millions of others who recovered, but who are now facing the debilitating downstream effects of their COVID fight? How much shorter will their lives be as a result?
Yet because COVID is no longer a shock comparable to that of an enemy bombing or a terrorist attack or a mall shooting, its effects are muted in real time, even as our loved ones – or as we ourselves – suddenly join the ranks of the infected. Just today I learned that one of my students has it and one of my ex-girlfriends may have it, just as half of the State of California goes on stay-at-home lockdown as of early this morning. But apart from the hundreds of thousands who died and the millions more who suffer from its effects, there are the countless other downstream effects: businesses closed, weddings and graduations cancelled, children robbed of a year of their lives . . . it is impossible to quantify them.
So, on this Pearl Harbor anniversary day . . . don’t just remember the victims. Think about the fact that it is now 79 years later, and that we are still remembering the day itself. Think beyond the cumulative toll of all the lives lost that day . . . why was that event itself seared so terribly into our collective memory? And why are so many Americans today so oblivious to the gargantuan tragedy – not just the daily death counts, but *waves arms wildly in all directions* all of this – unfolding around us?
COVID does not make the Pearl Harbor attack any less tragic by comparison, nor is our collective remembrance of that day somehow unjustified if literally more people die today from COVID than from the actual event we are remembering. But both events are historically massive, albeit for different reasons: one killed a few and shocked many, while the other shocked few but killed a great many. Both count as transformative tragedies, yet only one was immediately and universally recognizable for its terribleness. Hopefully, as we reflect on the horrors of Pearl Harbor for the 79th year, more of us will begin to recognize, anticipate, and mourn the horrors of the other.
Wear a mask.