05/29/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Day That Was

For so many of us, this past holiday weekend was about BBQs, pool parties and celebrating the beginning of summer. The fact that it was Memorial Day seemed, once again, to be an afterthought. Yet we remain at war, a fact that has fallen dangerously out of our national consciousness.

I think a big reason for this is that the war in Afghanistan, along with the one we fought for so long in Iraq, are so different from the conflicts of our past. Even though young men and women are fighting, and dying, under the flag of the United States, the country itself has been allowed to remain frighteningly detached. The burden of service is being borne by only a small percentage of our population who have answered the call to duty, often several times over. We like to talk a lot about a "volunteer military", but I believe that term should carry an asterisk.

This Memorial Day offered an opportunity to reflect on a very different moment when America was called upon to bear the burdens of war. It is the 50th anniversary of dedication of the memorial to the USS Arizona, which was sunk in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. In the end, 1,177 men lost their life when that mighty battleship was lost, comprising nearly half of the total number of deaths on that day.

The war it unleashed was a truly national effort. I remember as a young boy the pride in leading my neighborhood in collecting both aluminum cans and rubber tires for the war effort. We all felt that we would succeed, or fail, as one. So different from today.

I recently returned to Pearl Harbor for a documentary film about that day of infamy and its many ripples through the subsequent 70 years of history. It was deeply personal work because I worry that the lessons of that day are in danger of being forgotten. As I talked to so many different people about Pearl Harbor, from survivors (now mostly in their 90s), to Japanese tourists and scholars, to historians who have created a remarkable museum at the site, to Hawaii's senior senator and war hero Daniel Inouye, I realized that the only way to understand the meaning of an event like that December 7, is to see it through many points of view.

I worry that the wars we have fought since 9/11, the civil liberties we have given up in the name of national security, the actions that have been taken both here and abroad under the banner of our flag and our global reputation are passing by without us taking adequate stock. We are not asking the hard questions of ourselves or others. But it is not too late.

It took 20 years after Pearl Harbor before there was a memorial to the Arizona. The country was eager to put the war behind it and to confront other challenges. The shameful treatment of Japanese Americans, a topic we also talk about in our documentary, took even longer to confront. It took 15 years after World War II for Hawaii to become a state, because frankly many political leaders didn't think a place so racially diverse should be a part of our country. Yet on all these fronts, brave Americans kept telling us we could not afford to forget, and injustices needed to be righted. Today, with our economy in turmoil and a sense of unease about our future, it would be easy to put the past decade behind us. Hopefully there are enough brave voices reminding us we cannot afford to do that.

When I was in Hawaii, I went to Punchbowl national cemetery, one of the most moving tributes to American sacrifice anywhere in the world. There is a section of the cemetery where brothers who died in combat are buried side by side. I can't help but think of the mother and father, family and friends, who were left behind, the empty seats at the Thanksgiving table. War is hell, and when a nation commits to it, every one of us must be invested. And then, we must not be too busy or eager to move on to not learn the lessons of history.

At the 70th anniversary, Mal Middlesworth, a Pearl Harbor survivor who we profiled in our documentary summed it up best, "Let no author, historian or politician attempt to rewrite the history of what happened here 70 years ago. You sitting in the audience must be the guardians of our truth. Let no one disturb the sacred water in the harbor. They hold the watery graves of that date of infamy and those among us whose ashes are yet to join you. Remember Pearl Harbor, keep America alert, God Bless you and God Bless America."

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