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We can honor Pearl Harbor by living like those of 'the civic generation'

Photo placards and mementos are on display as part of an exhibit at The Museum of World War II, in Natick, Massachusetts, on Oct. 4, 2016.
Photo placards and mementos are on display as part of an exhibit at The Museum of World War II, in Natick, Massachusetts, on Oct. 4, 2016.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

A total of 2,335 U.S. servicemen were killed 75 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941.

At Pearl Harbor, Japan destroyed 20 American naval vessels (including eight battleships) and more than 300 airplanes. The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the atrocity would "live in infamy" as Congress declared war on Japan.

Today, only a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors remain to tell the story.

Yet their legacy of self-sacrifice and example of civic duty ripple well beyond the battlefields of World War II. To properly memorialize Pearl Harbor and America's WWII veterans, the nation should turn first to emulating their example.

Although the nation often memorializes veterans for their willingness to die for their country, equally significant is the way they lived for America. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam calls those who were born roughly between 1910 and 1940 — many of whom fought in WWII — the “civic generation.”

Though they witnessed the worst of humanity, this generation never lost faith in their neighbors. In Putnam’s seminal book “Bowling Alone,” he observes that those of the WWII generation “belong to almost twice as many civic associations” as their grandchildren. They are more than “twice as likely to trust other people,” “attend church regularly” and “work on a community project.”

They consume newspapers and television news at much higher rates and are much more likely to cast a ballot on Election Day.

Putnam concludes: “Since national polling began, this cohort has been exceptionally civic — voting more, joining more, reading more, trusting more, giving more." And they have done all this with less formal schooling than subsequent generations.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur — the man who accepted Japan’s official surrender nearly four years after Pearl Harbor — famously said, “The soldier, above all other men, is required to perform the highest act of religious teaching — sacrifice. … However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.”

It was Jesus Christ, whose birth we remember this month, who taught his disciples: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”