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Pearl Harbor Attack USS SHAW

The destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. 

December 7. This is the day that shall live in infamy, as Franklin D. Roosevelt told us 77 years ago.

And indeed, the memory of that day when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all but wiped out the U.S. Pacific fleet in a few hours of bombing is still remembered — not only for a cruel attack that caused a terrible loss of life, but also as a time when the American people came together as seldom before in history.

Pearl Harbor had a disproportionate impact on Wisconsin families simply because the state Guard's 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry Division, which had distinguished itself during World War I, happened to be on active duty on Dec. 7, 1941, having been called up a year before to begin training for what most people believed was the war brewing in Europe.

The division, numbering close to 10,000 members, quickly changed gear from preparing for combat in cold and snowy Germany to fighting a war in the hot and sticky jungles of the South Pacific. In a matter of weeks, the entire division was in Australia, gearing up for a fight that was to continue for the next three years, including 654 days of combat — longer than any unit in the U.S. Army. While the 32nd and hundreds of other units were fighting in the Far East, tens of thousands of others, of course, were quickly dispatched to Germany.

The cost to these Wisconsin soldiers was 2,600 casualties — so no one has to explain to Wisconsin families the significance of Dec. 7.

The same way that after World War I ended with the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, the surrender of Germany  in May 1945 and then of Japan in September that year were seen as signaling that humankind had fought its last war. It was as silly a thought then as it is today. Quickly came Korea, then Vietnam, then the Mideast, plus all the little hostilities in between.

My dear late friend Ed Garvey wrote a column for the Cap Times back in 2001, when we once again were clamoring to go to war to avenge the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Noting that this was a different time than 1941, when the very existence of our democratic government and deeply held freedoms were in danger, Garvey, a veteran himself, asked: "Before we unleash our missiles and bombs, could we hit the pause button long enough to soberly and carefully decide what is in our long-term best interests and develop polices that will protect us in the long run?

"The response to Pearl Harbor was as easy and predictable as the schoolyard punch. We knew who did it, we understood their goals, we knew where they lived and we sprang into action. We did what had to be done.

"It was Dwight David Eisenhower who rose to the presidency from the ashes of that war. And it was Ike who told us that war was hell. While none of us really know, I think that if he were alive today he would caution us to move slowly, particularly when we don't know for sure who did this to us.

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"Should we just bomb countries back to the Stone Age just in case? Or should we demonstrate that we are both brave and intelligent? Is the real plan to bog us down in a war with no end?" he added.

So, here we are 17 years later and still bogged down in Afghanistan, even though that day FDR said would live in infamy should have taught us something about picking our fights — that we should know the enemy and how to beat him.

As Ed Garvey concluded, "Let us honor those who died with something more noble and lasting than additional acts of violence that will only beget more violence."

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.