TCS Daily

Big-Screen Bomb 'Pearl Harbor' Flashes Apt Warnings for the Present Age

By James Pinkerton - June 4, 2001 12:00 AM

The Japanese bombed the real Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but the critics blasted the movie "Pearl Harbor" over the Memorial Day weekend. And yet just as that historical tragedy led ultimately to victory over fascism in the last century, so the cinematic calamity that is "Pearl Harbor" could lead to heightened awareness of the dangers America faces in this century. And if so, then the sacrifice of all that Disney studio money-and the reputation of director Michael Bay-will have been more than worthwhile.

To be sure, that's an optimistic reading of a movie that the critics have strafed, dive-bombed, and torpedoed. The Associated Press' David Germain called the film "three hours of dreck." The Washington Post's Desson Howe played on the title of the 1970 Pearl Harbor epic, "Tora! Tora! Tora!"; the new film, he jibed, should have been called "Bore-a, Bore-a, Bore-a." In the same vein, The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern derided the film as "Snore-a! Snore-a! Snore-a!'' Meanwhile The Chicago Sun-Times's Roger Ebert snarled, "There is not a shred of conviction or chemistry in the love triangle." As The New York Post's Lou Lumenick said, "The bulk of the three-hour epic is third-rate schmaltz that pays only lip service to history."

Even those critics impressed by the film's mighty theme-notably the spectacular 40-minute attack sequence sandwiched in amidst everything else-were unimpressed by the film overall. Another Washington Post critic, Stephen Hunter, declared that, "As long as 'Pearl Harbor' stays in the past, it's perfect." But when it veers off in other dramatic directions, he added, it degenerates into "Hollywood stupidity and callowness." Even the conservative-tilting Washington Times slapped a nasty headline atop Gary Arnold's negative review: "Script sinks flag-waving 'Pearl Harbor.'"

So much for "Pearl Harbor." But what about Pearl Harbor? What lessons does it offer to us today? Is the U.S., lone superpower that it is, now immune from attack? Or do we still have to be prepared?

Leaders in both parties think that we are, in fact, unprepared.

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) has been warning for years about the threat of "an electronic Pearl Harbor"-that is, an attack on U.S. infrastructure here on the home front. Andrews cites particularly the dangers from computer hackers; in March 1997, for example, a Massachusetts teenager hacked into a phone company computer system and knocked out telecommunications for the western part of the state. For six hours, air traffic controllers at the Worcester airport relied on cell phones and battery powered radios to direct planes to safety. And in February 1998, two California teens, working with a third hacker in Israel, broke into a Pentagon computer that was managing U.S. troop deployments to the Persian Gulf. The attack was so effective that the Defense Department initially told President Clinton that Iraq was the likely culprit. Fortunately, the truth was revealed before the episode escalated into an international incident. Andrews, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has had some success in improving U.S. anti-hacking coordination, but the "hardening" of U.S. infrastructure assets, from electric utilities to phone companies to Internet service providers, is as yet undone.

And Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has been sounding the alarm on missile-defense and space-war issues for years as well. In January, before he returned to the cabinet, the once and future DOD chief had already set in motion the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization-a bipartisan panel, chartered by Congress--which warned of a "space Pearl Harbor." In testimony last month before Andrews and the rest of the House Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld cited the past as prologue to the future: during Dick Cheney's confirmation hearing to be defense secretary in 1989, he recalled, the possibility that U.S. interests faced a threat from Iraq did not come up even once. And yet a year later, Saddam Hussein stunned America and the world by occupying Kuwait. To drive home his point about the inevitability of surprise, Rumsfeld gave each committee member a copy of Roberta Wohlstetter's 1962 defense classic, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decisions.

Warning? Did the U.S. have warning about Pearl Harbor? That's one of the longest-running controversies in modern American history. Just two years ago, Navy veteran-turned-journalist Richard B. Stinnett published Day of Deceit: The Truth About F.D.R. and Pearl Harbor. The title of the book communicates its thesis, that President Roosevelt knew in advance that the Japanese were going to attack the U.S. Stinnett is no crackpot-his book was published by the blue-chippy Free Press-but he did not, for all his effort, produce a "smoking gun." What he did produce was evidence of lots of evidence that the Japanese were up to something. But that, of course, was precisely the argument made by Wohlstetter four decades ago--that overworked analysts could not be expected to identify precisely the right evidence amidst the "static" of information they were buried under. In other words, what Clausewitz called the "fog of war" applies to the peacetime military, too.

Yet even so, Americans were fully aware that Japan posed a threat to America, that Pearl Harbor was a prime target. In February 1932, before FDR was even president, the U.S. military staged a mock aerial attack on Pearl Harbor; in the words of Admiral Arthur Radford, who was there at the time, the mock attack was "an almost perfect duplicate" of the real thing a decade later. And one doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry when reading these words from the August 1940 issue of Fortune magazine: "War with Japan is the only war for which the U.S. is prepared."

Today, both Congressman Andrews and Secretary Rumsfeld argue that America is undefended, both in cyberspace and in outer space. Will they be heeded? Maybe. "Pearl Harbor" can help, even if just a tiny bit.

As gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote recently, "It certainly is true that 'Pearl Harbor' is not a good movie, but it's the one we have. And some of it is compelling. It's better than no history at all." Smith remembered, "I was standing on a corner in Abilene, Texas, hitching a ride to my college when a man in a passing car yelled, 'They've just bombed Pearl Harbor!' A gang of us went to our dorms and looked up Pearl Harbor in the atlas. The next day almost every man on campus volunteered for the Navy, Marines, Air Force or the Army. I went to work in a B-24 bomber plant. Life was never the same after that."

Smith is right. The U.S. recovered from Pearl Harbor, of course, but we might not be so fortunate next time. The U.S. has been a lucky country, but over the long run, the nations that flourish are those that make their own luck-and their own prudent preparations.

TCS Daily Archives