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kottke.org posts about World War 2

The Non-Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Explosions from the Attack on Pearl Harbor, shown from a Japanese plane's view

So, here’s something I didn’t really fully notice until after it was over: December 7, 2021 (Tuesday) was the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Usually, whole 10x number anniversaries of major world events are done to death. The 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor (just five years ago) certainly was, so much so that the recent Pearl Harbor-related stories of most newspapers pull up mostly stories from that date. But the 80th? Not much at all.

This is anecdotal, but, I think, indicative: in my RSS feeds, which are filtered by me but pretty comprehensive, there’s just one news story about Pearl Harbor, and it’s not really about the anniversary, but about the US military ending its efforts to fully identify the dead in the wreckage. Then there’s one (bad) op-ed from the NYT that I won’t link to, and an essay by Joyce Johnson in the New York Review of Books. That’s it. No living memory or reprise of historicization in the newspapers, no passing thoughts in the week’s political blogs. It’s like the anniversary didn’t happen.

I won’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, partly because I don’t know (you can make honest cases either way!) and partly because it’s not my job, but it seems worth noting that it is a thing that’s happening. No event, no matter how global, how deadly, or how significant in subsequent world affairs is so universally relevant that every anniversary is a platform for public memory.

Pick an event: the atom bomb detonation at Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, 9/11. I will bet you that however elaborate their 50th or even 75th anniversaries might be, the 80th will be correspondingly muted. There will then be a spike of interest around the 100th, and then it will fade into semi-obscurity until the 150th or 200th anniversaries roll around.

That just seems to be how time works: once an event no longer defines the living memory of a significant portion of the population, it becomes an item of historic interest, and/or an item of trivia. Some dates may live in infamy, but none of them will live forever.