Amidst the books and the busts and framed photographs that adorn my leathery office in downtown Nashville, there is a jagged piece of metal that visitors often ask me about. It is unframed and unlabeled and rests on the center table, rusted and ugly. I want it to be just that unattractive and intrusive, for it is a piece of the USS Arizona, which sank on this date—December 7—in 1941.
Military friends in Hawaii gave this piece of history to me and it has come to mean as much to me as any historical memento I own—as much as the handwritten letter from the pen of Winston Churchill or the map of the Pilgrim’s home in Holland. I treasure it both for what it reminds me of and for the warning that it is to our times.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and left 2,386 Americans dead. Half of these lost their lives when the Arizona’s forward magazine exploded after being hit by a 16 inch shell from a Japanese plane. Visitors to the ship’s resting place in that beautiful harbor today hear of how men were trapped below the Arizona’s decks for days afterward and of how they tapped out their goodbye’s on the metal hull until they breathed their last.
I am moved by their deaths as I am moved by what Pearl Harbor ought to mean to us today. We should recall that Japan was stirred to aggression by a raging militarism which was in turn incited by the proclamations and prophecies of Shinto priests. Shintoism, the ancient religion of Japan which views the Japanese islands and the Japanese people as divine, was inflamed in the 1930’s by a triumphant spirit which summoned the nation to arms. This was their hour of destiny. This was their chance to rule the world. Their enemies were weak. Victory was assured.
They attacked, then, and initially won. Their enemies were indeed weak, distracted as they were by a global economic depression and by hopes for the return of comforts lost. But the spirit behind the Shinto prophecies of victory betrayed the Japanese and set them up for near total humiliation by war’s end.
Today, we are again a people distracted, a people in economic crisis and a people hoping for the return of prosperity lost. Once again, a spirit stirs foreign lands with assurances of global dominance. Once again, the slumber of the West is disturbed by the rattling of sabers. This time, though, it is not the sabers of a nation but of the inflamed edge of a religion, which promises to make the battles to come less defined than those at Midway and Iwo Jima but every bit as decisive.
I think I’ll keep my jagged piece of history right where it is in my office. I think I’ll let every visitor ask me what it is. And I think I’ll live my life in terms of the warning that sounds from those men entombed in the lower decks of the USS Arizona.