Why Don't We Call It the "Battle of Pearl Harbor"?

January 15, 2019

Reading the history books about World War II and the War in the Pacific, you’ll find chapters on the Battle of Iwo Jima, the Battle of Okinawa, the Battle of Guadalcanal. What you won’t find, however, is a “Battle of Pearl Harbor.” It’s true that the events of December 7, 1941 launched the war that spread across the Pacific, but unlike the conflicts that followed, it doesn’t quite fall under the definition of “battle.”

What Is a Battle, Anyway?

SBD-3 Dauntless bombers at the Battle of Midway 6 June 1942

SBD-3 Dauntless bombers at the Battle of Midway 6 June 1942

According to the dictionary, the definition of a battle is “a sustained fight between large organized armed forces” or “a lengthy and difficult conflict or struggle.” As a noun, “battle” does not accurately describe what occurred that quiet Sunday morning on the island of Oahu, in the American Territory of Hawaii.

Compare the chaos that ensued at Pearl Harbor to, for example, the Battle of Midway. Forces of both the United States and Japan had a plan. Entire fleets were mobilized in preparation of the Battle of Midway, maneuvers were coordinated, and both sides were well aware that something was going to unfold at Midway. American officials had run exercises at Pearl Harbor to determine if it could be successfully defended against a theoretical attack, but those weren’t done with any foreknowledge of the plan of attack orchestrated by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.


Pearl Harbor Was Unique

Tokyo War Crimes Trials defendants

Tokyo War Crimes Trials defendants

The question of whether or not the attack on Pearl Harbor was even a legal act of war precludes use of the word “battle” to describe it. Typically, engaging in a battle would not in itself be considered a war crime, as both sides are aware of the larger conflict responsible for the engagement at hand. At Iwo Jima, Japan was organized to defend the island while the Allies had mobilized troops to attack it, and there were no war crimes tribunals convened after the war to investigate. The attack on Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, was declared to have been a war crime, precisely because there was no warning and the two countries were technically at peace when it was carried out.



Accuracy Matters

While it may at first seem like a simple issue of semantics, the use of the word “battle” to describe what happened on December 7, 1941 is categorically incorrect. When it comes to retelling history, accuracy does matter, especially in a case like Pearl Harbor, which was determined later to have been a war crime. The “Battle of Pearl Harbor” makes it sound as if the United States was prepared for Japan’s incoming attack; but the truth is more than 2,400 American lives were lost that morning because the military bases around Oahu were completely unprepared for the Japanese attack.

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