Today, as we honor the few surviving sailors and naval aviators from the Battle of Pearl Harbor, now 75 years in our collective past, people in gun rights circles will repeat the (apocryphal) words of Vice Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, commander of the IJN Combined Fleet that carried out the attack.
You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.
Whether or not Yamamoto actually said this (Donald M. Goldstein, Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh claims that it’s bogus; others claim that the quote can be found in a letter to Ryoichi Saskakawa from Yamamoto stored in the files of Gordon W. Prange, the personal historian for Gen. Douglas MacArthur,) the quote illuminates something important.
It is true that the ready availability of rifles plus the knowledge and will to use them would have made any attempted occupation of the American homeland difficult. Indeed, resistance to the Japanese militarists was strong even in the Philippine Islands, whose residents were deprived of the Second Amendment, thanks in no small part to the racist Insular Cases.
It is also true that — the Philippines, Guam, and Attu notwithstanding — Yamamoto’s dark prophesy never came to pass. For Americans, World War II was less a war of homeland defense, and more a two-front expeditionary war in which industrial output was critical. It was a fight where massed armies faced each other in a meat-grinder overseas, where divisions would be smashed for small territorial gains, and entire cities bombed to the ground. (For those who really want to know what it was like to be a cog in the war machines, a good place to start is Paul Fussel’s Wartime. Warning: Fussel pulls no punches.)
How much did being a nation where riflemen waited behind every blade of grass matter in a war where (whatever the qualities of the equipment and soldiers — and they were both considerable,) T-34s prevailed over the Panzers in no small part because there were simply more of them ready to go? Where carrier air wings smashed battleships? Where Douhet-style air armadas devastated Dresden, Ploiești, Tokyo, and Royan? Where submarines torpedoing merchant ships brought Britain to her knees and Japan to the ground? Where the war was brought to an end by two individual aircrews delivering two individual bombs on two separate cities?
Ironically, the places in World War II where the partisan rifleman played an important independent role were not places where American riflemen were deployed in quantity: Indochina, Burma, Yugoslavia, the Warsaw ghettoes.
Today, in sharp contrast, we face a conflict where the rifleman – or perhaps I should say the pistol-man – actually might be decisive. As the attack by yet another terrorist drawing inspiration from the Islamic faith at Ohio State University last week demonstrated, the enemy we face today poses a distributed threat; he lies in repose among us until such time as he finds inspiration. The enemy gets its strength in part because it can tap into the faith of a certain segment of followers of one of the world’s great religions.
For all the heat generated this year about building a southern wall or banning Muslim immigrants from entering the country, those steps wouldn’t stop all terrorist attacks. Trying to filter anyone who might be susceptible to the siren call of jihad-fueled terror is a fool’s game for much the same reason that trying to disarm the American people is: communications are too cheap and easy, borders are too porous. Even if the USA was turned into a giant police state, people would slip through. Religious ideas, after all, are more portable and concealable even than guns or drugs. No, this is a long-term game of carrot-and-stick persuasion, played out for a mass audience.
Cognizant of these facts, the wisest course of action for most Americans outside of the political realm would be to take steps to prepare to deal with such an attack – to help be that stick. It isn’t enough to simply stay alert, or to carry a firearm — although I’d argue both of those steps are necessary components. Training to be competent in self-defense is important. Each of us should think through what we would do in case the defecation hits the oscillation ahead of time, because the moment of crisis is the worst time to come up with a plan.
In reality, those are steps that everyone should take anyway, until such time that humans universally become angels and crime is eradicated. But the good thing is that preparing for one particular vector of violence helps you prepare for others. In this conflict, the armed person who has the skill and will to fight — might actually be decisive, as in Texas last year when a traffic cop with a Glock managed to score hits on the attackers at a distance.
In this war where everyone from airplane passengers to nightclub partiers are first responders, the Second Amendment actually means more for national defense now than it did in the Big One.
We really do live in interesting times.
(Apologies to the late Louis Awerbuck for the use of his euphemism.)