Why the Sept. 11 attacks aren’t really like Pearl Harbor

Published 3:22 pm Friday, September 10, 2021

Newspaper Columnist
9/11 changed everything. Or so was the oft-repeated mantra at the time. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it is necessary for Americans to reflect on the memory of that day and the long shadow it has cast over the 21st century.
Everyone remembers where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. For those who lived through it, 9/11 is one of those touchstone moments in American history. People compared it to other monumental historical events, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Pearl Harbor, heralding the entry of the United States into the Second World War, seemed like an apt analogy in 2001, as NATO mobilized to attack Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
No historical analogy is perfect. While we might identify commonalities between historical events, history never actually repeats itself. The attack on Pearl Harbor did not play out in real time for Americans in 1941 in the same way that 9/11 did on network television in 2001. While there were civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor, the main Japanese target was a military installation; 9/11 deliberately targeted civilians. The Japanese military were the conventional armed forces of a nation-state; the terrorists of 9/11 were the secret operatives of a transnational organization.
For all these differences, though, the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11 occupied a similar place in the American popular imagination in 2001. Both attacks hit unsuspecting Americans hard. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 revealed the innocence and vulnerability of the United States in 1941 and 2001. And, in the immediate aftermath at least, both events galvanized the American people to prosecute righteous wars to avenge our dead.
But what about 20 years later? How does the way we remember 9/11 in 2021 compare with how Americans remembered Pearl Harbor in 1961? The answer reveals how our memory of these two events is inextricably linked with our understanding of the conflicts that they spawned.
The early anniversaries of Pearl Harbor mobilized the collective memory of Americans to drive the war effort against the Axis powers. Pearl Harbor served as a rallying cry for Americans to ensure that the United States would “never again” face such an embarrassing military disaster by exacting a terrible price from Japan for its “sneak” attack. By 1961, the scene had changed. The Second World War was long over. Japan was now an important strategic ally of the United States in East Asia in the global fight against communism. The memory of Pearl Harbor changed to reflect these new geopolitical realities. President Kennedy’s speech commemorating the 20th anniversary reminded Americans that they would always remember where they were on Dec. 7, 1941. But he also assured his audience that “we face entirely different challenges on this Pearl Harbor Day.”
Americans had moved on.
We remember where we were on 9/11 because we’re still there, stuck in a frozen conflict that was still ongoing up until a few days ago.
For the first time since 2001, it seems likely that Americans will reflect differently on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Polls suggest that the majority of Americans support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But the heartbreaking scenes of Afghan people climbing onto U.S. airplanes in their desperate bid to escape from Kabul inevitably make us question whether the war was worth the immeasurable suffering and sacrifices of the past 20 years.
Americans in 1961 had no such qualms about the United States’s participation in the Second World War when they commemorated Pearl Harbor Day. The Allies had won. Nation-building projects in West Germany and Japan had proved wildly successful. Victory had come at the cost of American lives, but no one seriously questioned the value of that great sacrifice. It was easier for Americans to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day in 1961 because it seemed like the past. They felt that the United States had been on the right side of history then and that it was now engaged in an equally important global venture to protect democracy from Soviet aggression.
It is unclear how long a shadow the withdrawal from Afghanistan will cast on our collective memory of 9/11. The end of the NATO mission may mark a turning point in our relationship with the Sept. 11 attacks. America’s longest war had turned into a frozen conflict long ago. The withdrawal was probably the only feasible conclusion for the Western powers at this stage.
In 2021, the comparison between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 seems much less powerful than it did 20 years ago. The Pearl Harbor analogy created unrealistic expectations about the kind of war that the United States was about to fight and the sort of victory that it might achieve. There was no political will under either Republican or Democratic administrations to fight a total war in Afghanistan. Indeed, a conventional conflict was not a viable option for fighting terrorist organizations, which did not rely on state infrastructure or popular will to mobilize their campaigns.