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Father's Day, Pearl Harbor, & My Generation


by Gary Gordon

Published in the Santa Monica Mirror, June 13-19

The first time I heard of California it was a place-name in a story my Dad was telling. I was probably four or five when I asked him what he did in the war. He said he was a lieutenant, that he was a cargo officer, but one of the first things he was assigned to do was to protect the coast of California from the Japanese. They put him on an anti-aircraft gun, he said, then reassigned him rightaway when he almost shot down the plane instead of the target it was towing.

My Dad, born in New York, went with many, many others to Whitehall Street to enlist right after Pearl Harbor-the sneak attack, not the movie.

Twenty-five years later, he had a hard time sharing my enjoyment of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant, as Arlo talked about going to Whitehall Street, reporting for the draft. Arlo was attacking an institution my father took pride in, and a war my father had yet to oppose.

Now comes the movie, Pearl Harbor, which the studio is increasingly promoting as a love story, not a war movie.

Such is the nature of spin.

And it is the nature of movies like this, and holidays like Memorial Day and Father's Day, to provoke us to think about the big questions, and wonder, and try to get it all to make sense.

This is not the first movie about the Japanese sneak attack. From Here To Eternity and Tora! Tora! Tora! come to mind.

But, as some pundits point out, it is part of a current spate of World War II movies, all seemingly on the heels of Tom Brokaw's book about "the greatest generation".

My mom, who lost a brother on Iwo Jima, says her mom once told her to watch out for the war movies. "When they start showing war movies, they're getting you ready for another war," my grandmother said.

My grandmother was an immigrant from war-torn Europe who, among other things, helped Frank Sinatra early in his singing career.

Sinatra was in From Here To Eternity, which was written by James Jones.

Jones also wrote The Thin Red Line, which was one of the recent WWII war movies. Saving Private Ryan was another.

Jones, like Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Irwin Shaw, and Leon Uris, was a soldier, a veteran, part of a great generation of novelists who tried to write what they knew to be true. None of them glorified war. In many respects, they were anti-war writers.

I sat with my Dad in an audience once, listening to Jones read from Whistle, the third book of his WWII trilogy. As Jones read about the wounded soldiers returning from war, my Dad teared up. It was one of the few times I saw him cry. The first time was when John Kennedy was shot.

Kennedy was a combat veteran of WWII. So was Eisenhower. So was George Bush, Sr. Nixon and Johnson served, but not in combat. Truman was a WWI combat veteran. Clinton ducked but didn't admit it. Bush, Jr. ducked, too and denied it too. My friend Neil Fullagar evaded the draft, but he didn't become president. Talkin' 'bout my generation.

Reagan played war in the movies. Like John Wayne, who never served. Jimmy Stewart served. Hank Greenberg served. Ted Williams served. They took away Muhammed Ali's championship belt and three years of his career because he refused to serve. Or did he just choose to serve a different way?

My mom had no intention of letting me go to Vietnam. She was set to take me to Canada, if necessary. I had the McGill University catalog and application on my desk the day I got my 2-S deferment. She'd lost a brother on Iwo; she was not going to lose a son.

As I understand it, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor as a warning to us to stay out of their conquest of Asia. Big mistake.

If only they'd watched some of the movies made with Stewart and Reagan and Wayne and Gary Cooper (who I'm named after, from High Noon), they'd have realized that we don't generally respond well to sneak attacks. Even when we've got no reserve and no industrial infrastructure, we'll declare war and put it together. At least, that's what we did.

Lately, some of the discussion among the Sunday Farmer's Market "solving the world's problems" table has been about the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative, fathers, Pearl Harbor, and, inevitably, Hiroshima. It seems any discussion of Pearl leads to Hiroshima, and vice versa.

Should we or should we not have dropped The Bomb?

I know this: Hiroshima would not have happened if Pearl Harbor hadn't happened. There is, in the screenplay vernacular, a direct thru-line from one event to the other. And it is probably unreasonable to expect or demand anything different.

Which leaves us with Pearl Harbor, a WWII movie that isn't really a WWII movie any more than Saving Private Ryan was a WWII movie. As the historian H. Bruce Franklin has noted, after the first twenty minutes, Saving Private Ryan was a Vietnam movie, a Chuck Norris Missing In Action yarn, with Ryan as MIA. Ryan, spelled inside-out is Yarn.

Folks in Spielburg's and Hanks' generation (of which I'm a part) don't really understand WWII, anymore than most of those folks understood the Vietnam/anti-war generation. Which is why Jones' books and the movies made from them ring truer than this current schlock.

My generation didn't have a war hero become our elected leader. We didn't have any kind of heroes become our elected leader.

What we did have is people like Georgia Congressman John Lewis: heroes of the Civil Rights movement.

What Tom Brokaw has yet to learn is that the "greatest generation", while rising to greatness in WWII, wasn't that great. They're also the ones, in the South, who ran segregation. They're also the ones who executed the Vietnam War.

My Dad's favorite president was Truman. It didn't matter to him, as I would argue, that Truman created the basis for the national security state. Truman was honest, forthright, and correct. He gave 'em hell. He was a Democrat who fought. (Boy, if only they existed now.) When General MacArthur, a WWII hero, disobeyed orders, Truman fired him.

Of course there was a hoopla then, but imagine the hoopla that would occur now, what with all the pundits and 24-hour news cycles to fill. Hours and hours would be spent worrying and agonizing over how such a thing might affect the morale of "our boys and girls" overseas.

As you recall from the seizure of the spy plane, it's boys and girls, not men and women. As you recall from the Lewinsky "scandal", she was "only 21". Are we infantalizing our young adults?

What my generation has to learn could fill volumes, but certainly includes this: just because many of us opposed an immoral war doesn't mean we know what it's like to suffer a surprise attack.

And we know this: you're an adult at 18. Enough of this boys and girls crap.

If only Hollywood could find a way to make a movie about Pearl Harbor that was about Pearl Harbor. And a Civil Rights movie that was about Civil Rights. And an anti-war movie that was about the Peace Movement.

If my grandmother was right about war movies, it's clearly time to worry.

Several years ago, Sinatra gave money to Israel in my grandmother's name, as a thank you.

Israel is also a topic of our roundtable. And although we agree on many things, this one's divisive. I do not know what it's like to live, surrounded and outnumbered by enemies. I do not know what it's like to build a country from scratch-I know a little about what it's like to try to change one for the better. I do not know, personally, what it's like to have to leave a land I might consider home. I may be a displaced person in this culture, never having made the conversion to Yuppiedom, but I've never been a refugee.

"Everybody's got to fight to be free," sang Tom Petty, from my home town-I once hired his band to play at a high school dance-not really equivalent to helping Sinatra, butů

My Dad encouraged freewheeling political discussion around the dinner table. Only once did he pull rank. I suggested that some people said America's entry into World War II and the Marshal Plan afterwards were all part of this nation's imperialistic tendencies.

"Bullshit," said my Dad, using a word he almost never used. "Don't tell me. I was there."

In 1972 my Dad voted for McGovern. In the primary as well as the general election. In 1978 he passed away.

They're about to build a memorial in D.C. to WWII vets. I don't think my Dad could've cared less about that. If it was a library or a university, or if they put the money into scholarships, that'd be a different thing.

I've been to Arlington and the battlefield at the Little Bighorn. I've read Lincoln's words on his memorial, and walked along the wall with the names. Those sites speak volumes more than the Speer-like columns and slabs that Dole et al have in mind.

When I see a Vietnamese person, I sometimes wonder if their story includes what my country did to their country. When I see a Japanese person, I sometimes wonder if they're related to the soldiers who killed my Uncle. When I see a man my father's age, I sometimes wonder what his war story is.

When I think of my Dad stationed here in Southern California, I wonder, why didn't you buy land here then?


(Gary Gordon served his country in the Emory Mobilization Committee To End The War [The Mobe] and in the Catfish Alliance.)

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