PRUDEN: Crashing the party at Pearl Harbor

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ANALYSIS/OPINION

The mystic chords of memory hold World War II in a stubborn embrace. The reminders of the war that began here on a bright Sunday morning seven decades ago lie all about this tropical paradise.

Some reminders are more tangible than others. This week, the Navy revealed that a workboat dredging Pearl Harbor had brought up a human skull, probably from one of the Japanese bomber pilots who fell into the harbor with his plane. Twenty-nine Japanese planes were shot down and 55 pilots killed on the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”

The Navy’s announcement was followed by a day by an unusual tea ceremony at the memorial that sits astride the remains of the USS Arizona, now a watery tomb whose outline is clearly visible beneath the waves. Political correctness ran amok, as misplaced sentiment will.

The grand tea master of something called the Urasenke School of Tea in Japan brewed up a pot of ceremonial green tea and presented two bowls of it to the ghosts of the 1,177 men whose names are engraved in marble above their ship as “the gallant men here entombed and their shipmates who gave their lives in action on December 7, 1941.”

Genshitsu Sen XV, now 88, was a Japanese airman during World War II, though not at Pearl, and said his tea ceremony was a gesture of respect toward the dead, an attempt to make sure sacrifice was not forgotten, as well as a few words of ritual blah blah about world peace, mutual understanding, reconciliation and all that good stuff. Gov. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii went all starry-eyed and applied more goo-goo in response.

The governor called the ceremony a nod to both the Japanese culture and the strong mutual respect between the United States and Japan, warm friends and allies since the Japanese surrender on the decks of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay nearly four years after Pearl Harbor. The governor thinks the tea pots even hold a lesson for “other people and countries warring with as much enmity and mutual misunderstanding as we once experienced ourselves.” Maybe it does, though to expect such an example to make friends of radical Muslims in the Middle East is to expect a lot from a little tea and sympathy.

The ceremony attracted the usual political and military officials, including the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet and two old salts who were there when the bombs began to fall. It’s certainly true that Japan and the United States are good friends now, and it’s only right and proper to let bygones be bygones, even to forgive if not forget. But ceremonial tea-sipping at the USS Arizona is akin to crashing the funeral.

“Trust but verify,” Ronald Reagan said of another old foe now friendly, sort of. But the Gipper was not immune to the temptation to spread a little goo-goo on old wounds. He could be a sucker for sentiment and old friends, and he let Helmut Kohl persuade him to go to Bitburg and a military cemetery in Germany to pay tribute to German soldiers. Mr. Reagan, having ignored protests of both houses of Congress, dozens of organizations of veterans, Jews and others, arrived at Bitburg to master the situation with his usual eloquence. He stood only a few feet from the graves of SS storm troopers to say the ritual things about how bad the Nazis were, invoking moral equivalence to “mourn the German war dead as human beings, crushed by a vicious ideology.”

The SS troopers were human, perhaps, but the Gipper was more than a few inches over the top to mourn storm troopers. They were the crushers working for the “vicious ideology,” not the crushees. Some things, as wise old Mammy told Scarlett O’Hara, “just ain’t fittin’.” No further explanation needed. The Gipper’s White House aides later told the New York Times the Bitburg visit was “the biggest fiasco” of the Reagan presidency.

The Japanese tea master said his ceremony was meant to “heal,” invoking the favorite soothing syrup of the therapeutic age, and no doubt it was. (Cue applause.) But some wounds can’t be healed by a pot of tea, hot or iced. A tea party aboard the remains of the USS Arizona, however well-meant, is sentiment misplaced, and a little bit creepy. To think otherwise demeans the sacrifice of the men at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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