As our memory fades, so too does our understanding

I don’t remember Pearl Harbor.

Nor should I. I was born in 1980, three days after the 39th anniversary of the event. I wasn’t alive when it happened. I didn’t see it. I didn’t feel it. My knowledge of Pearl Harbor comes from news footage, dozens of documentaries, and some famous lines uttered by an American president.

Still, I’ve tried to understand the event and its impact on the psyche of this country. I’ve tried to place myself in the shoes of an American going about his daily life in 1941, only to then be struck by the shock, fear and anger of learning about the attack.

But no matter how hard I try, or how close I can approximate the intellectual exercise of “trying to be there,” I simply wasn’t there. I can’t possibly speak with any kind of authority about what it felt like, what it meant to me and the country, or what it may have caused me to do afterward. The best I can do is understand it in a semi-academic way, and coldly analyze what happened, and what it meant.

This is dangerous, because without having experienced it, without feeling it yourself, you risk missing a lot of the important elements that made the event as important as it was.

I can understand, in historical terms, that it shocked people, but without having felt that shock, it makes it harder to understand the fear and outrage experienced by the average American of the time. I can understand, in historical terms, that it caused the nation to flip from passive isolationists to interventionist on a dime, and that it led to millions of men and women dropping everything they were doing and enlisting in the war effort.

But do I really understand why, without experiencing what they did? It is hard.

Looking at the past through the analytical lens of hindsight, particularly if you did not live through a particular period, can really cause problems. Today, almost no one my age or younger truly understands how the country could have lost its collective mind the way that it did during the McCarthy hearings, or how anyone could have thought it was a good idea for us to engage in the war in Vietnam.

But both of these things becomes perfectly understandable if you were alive at the time.

You don’t have to agree, in retrospect, with the decisions that were made. But to truly understand them, you have to understand the emotions of the moment, and also realize that they were living at a time when the future had yet to play out. Looking back is always different than looking forward.

A U.S. flag hangs from a steel girder, damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, at a memorial in Jersey City, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2019 as the sun rises behind the One World Trade Center building and the re-developed area where the Twin Towers of World Trade Center once stood in New York City on the 18th anniversary of the attacks. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

This year marks the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

That means that today, there are 18 year olds — adults — who were born after the event happened. Think about that for a moment, there are now people who are adults who were not yet born when the attacks happened. There are people even older who were too young to really remember or experience it, and those even older who do remember it, but were too young to truly grapple with it.

In the aftermath of the attacks, American leaders made a number of strategic mistakes, based on a mixture of arrogance and incompetence. Afghanistan, the more just of America’s wars, was still a futile mistake, as evidenced by our inevitable agreement with the Taliban and true withdrawal from the country. Iraq, however justified the ousting of Saddam Hussein was, never proved to be the great foreign policy achievement it was purported to be, and to this day the country remains a fractured sectarian hellscape.

Our armed forces have been at war since immediately after the attack, causing today a crisis of recruitment and over-exhausted, mentally traumatized men and women, many of whom are wondering what it was all for.

It is easy to look back at these last 18 years and dismissively say that anyone should have known. How clear it is, as we look backward, that our train went down the wrong track. Undoubtedly generations of people who weren’t there, and don’t remember will look back in bewilderment and ask themselves how anyone could have made those mistakes.

But I remember. And for anyone who remembers, and felt those same feelings, and experienced that same experience, it isn’t hard to understand.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.