Primus Mootry column: What have we learned from World War II and 9/11? | Columns

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“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…”

– President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In a 7-minute speech nearly 70 years ago, those are some of the words FDR spoke a day after the storied attack on Pearl Harbor. His purpose was to say in short, carefully crafted words what happened in the “sudden and deliberate” attack, and to rally an isolationist America into the furnace of World War II, as allies with Great Britain and France. What have we learned from this?

With little congressional resistance, within an hour after the speech the United States declared war on Japan because of its declaration of war against us, and the “dastardly” manner in which Japan feigned peace talks at the same time it was planning for war. By the war’s end in 1945, the United States had spent $400 trillion, and at least 400,000 American soldiers were lost in the global furnaces of battle. It is important to note, depending on whose numbers you count and how you count them, 60 million to 100 million soldiers and civilians – men, women, and children worldwide – were casualties.

As the United States revved its public and private sector engines, in the end, America prospered in its esteem around the world, in its economic standing, its social habits, and its new standing as perhaps the world’s only superpower (arguably, Russia emerged stronger, too).

From a social standpoint, women became permanently positioned in the workforce (remember Rosie the Riveter?); the changed role of women in society profoundly affected males and, next thing you know, women were publicly burning their bras.

Post-Depression era unemployment was at an astonishing 10%. The 350,000 African American soldiers who valiantly fought beside their white brothers-in-arms returned home with new attitudes toward racial fictions and civil rights and, although it is rarely discussed, these men were no doubt a key element in the civil rights movement that began in the mid-1950s); nations began to nuclearize as the 50-year Cold War began.

There are few events in modern history where the majority of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the event(s) occurred. I can count only four: the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the 1986 space shuttle disaster; and, of course, 9/11. It is a tragedy none of us will ever forget.

The World War II sneak attack on our naval Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor killed over 2,400 personnel and destroyed 19 ships. In the 9/11 sneak attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 3,000 people died. The government response was immediate, eventually leading to the global war on terrorism, war with Iraq, and new legislation such as the USA Patriot Act. Perhaps out of their personal fears (including possible attacks on the White House and/or the halls of Congress, Congress acted hastily and, some say, irresponsibly).

As a nation and as a culturally diverse society, what have we learned? Since 9/11, America has spent over $2 trillion on Middle East wars and homeland security. Unlike the social impacts of World War II, however, 9/11 did not improve our superpower status, our economy, or friendlier views toward our democracy. Also, conceptually, how does a country win a war on terror? Terror, after all, is an idea. It is an idea that cannot be killed by killing terrorists.

Although in very different ways, 9/11 forever changed America compared to World War II. The huge amounts of money and all the laws passed in its aftermath have brought us no clear victory and, worse, in spite of all the efforts to make us feel secure, in general, I think we feel less secure. In fact, I believe we are still experiencing a kind of national post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), primarily due to a sense of increased vulnerability. This generalized feeling of vulnerability has opened the doors to demagogic leaders, tribalism, ethnic tensions, and other internal threats.

I don’t know, but this trauma may be responsible for much of the chaos we see today. I think many people have simply lost hope. That makes us more vulnerable, and a danger to ourselves and others. After all, a man (or woman) who has lost hope is the most dangerous person in the world. They don’t care about themselves. And, by consequence, they have no reason to care about others. What have we learned?

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.

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