Almost three quarters of a century ago — 72 years on Dec. 7 (Saturday) to be exact — the course of the history of the United States of America dramatically shifted and forever changed.

At 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time, Japanese planes flew low over the U.S. naval base on Oahu. The ensuing early Sunday morning attack, which took the base by complete surprise, would result in eight ships being sunk, nearly a dozen more damaged, more than 300 aircraft lost and the deaths of 2,402 Americans. Most of the fatalities were military personnel.

At that time, America was a nation burned by World War I and, as a result, dedicated to leaving the world’s problems for the rest of the world to solve. So the bombing of Pearl Harbor was a rude awakening. This was an unwanted and costly notice demonstrating that sometimes the world’s problems do belong to the whole world, and not just to one nation or region.

In bombing Pearl Harbor, the Japanese central command hoped to permanently cripple the United States military in the Pacific and, by doing so, limit U.S. involvement in the escalating war.

That was a world unlike today, without Twitter and instant updates, so you wouldn’t be able to read of death tolls from online news sources or view color photography. Yet the U.S. government and its populace responded swiftly and put its entire might behind the war effort — that was before all the families of the killed servicemen had even been properly notified.

A behemoth of an economic engine shifted overnight, and with it, the destiny of the United States. The next five years would cost the nation dearly in money and blood. And yet at the end of the war, in 1946, the United States stood at the edge of the world stage as both the strongest military and economic force in the world.

It’s been easy in the past to take a minute to pause and think about our soldiers on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and there was a time when WWII veterans were prevalent. They were men who most of us knew, so it was easier to praise their service and sacrifice.

Not anymore. As each year rolls by, those surviving veterans get a little older and fewer in number. Even the people — whose sons and brothers and fathers and husbands were on the USS Arizona or the USS California — are disappearing and no longer able to light candles each year in honor of those who served and died for their country.

As time marches on, Dec. 7 is slowly turning into just another day — just another point in history that we’re supposed to memorize to pass an exam sometime in the 10th grade, just another war that the United States fought and won.

But Dec. 7 is not just another day. Consider the attack and the war that resulted, and you will see the United States pushed into a position of world dominance, whether that was desired or not. Our history, we’ve learned, will be marked with moments when we as a nation get to choose our response, and in choosing our response, will choose our future.

Those Americans who woke up to newspaper headlines about ships sinking in the Pacific rolled up their sleeves and fought back. They eventually were dubbed the “greatest generation.”

Now look to our modern times, when the “millennials” awoke on Sept. 11, 2001, to live news coverage of buildings falling down in Manhattan.

We cannot say which crises our grandchildren will face, or whether they will come in the sickening thud of sudden attacks or the slow rise of global temperatures. What we can ask of ourselves and of them is to:

  • Always remember;

  • Pause and reflect on the anniversaries of the days when the world shifted and changed;

  • Read the stories of the heroes and the families;

  • Know the heavy burden of what choices we as a people make when faced with tragedies beyond comprehension; and

  • Know that when we define the cost of an American life, we are valuing it in comparison to the cost of other, non-American lives, and that the decisions we make can alter the world in good, bad and unknown ways.
  • So when Dec. 7 rolls around, take a pause. Think — and remember.

    Callie Vandewiele is a freelance writer in the Portland area and a 2008 Pacific University graduate.

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