A bit of a rambling meditation more than an essay. Sorry.
At what point does a battle become part of popular (or vernacular) culture? More people understand that “That was his Waterloo” than remember the date, or combatants, or location, of the actual battle, aside from Napoleon being involved. I grew up with references to Custer and the Little Big Horn (as in “he’s got more troubles than Custer had Indians,” or “As comfortable as Custer at the Little Big Horn.”) Occasionally I’ve heard passing references to Cannae, usually in the sense that someone got suckered and surrounded. But has Pearl Harbor reached that point?
I’m not sure. I’ve read military commenters using it as a metaphor, or comparisons to political events or personal disasters. Of course people compared Sept. 11th to the attack on Pearl Harbor, although once you get beyond the surface parallels, it becomes harder to make an exact comparison. The attackers had different goals, aimed at a different category of target, were motivated by different desired end outcomes, and backed by very different resource bases. “My generation’s Pearl Harbor?” Eh, I don’t think anyone in 1941 was surprised when an ally of Nazi Germany, a world power that had swept across China and Southeast Asia, entered the war. How, and that they attacked without advanced warning (as in formal termination of diplomatic relations, removal of all personnel from the US and US territories, and so on) caught everyone off guard, but not that it was Japan and that they were angry with the US.
In some ways, Pearl Harbor marked the beginning (for active US military action) of the last war of nation-states. Korea might be the last gasp, but Vietnam and subsequent? Desert Storm looked like a classical war, but I think historians will slot it into the Islamist Wars (in a few more years. We’re just now touching the 30 year rule). The current era owes less to the Treaty of Westphalia and the world it begot than it does to the older tribal wars or the tribal-in-the-guise-of-religion wars of the world. You would likely be safe looking at the Zulu Wars fought against the British (and anyone else in their way) and make Bin Laden’s comment about the strong and weak horses.
The current conflict, which you can safely date to a start point in 1979, is far more tribal than modernity would like to admit. It has certainly re-opened tribal gaps that seemed safely closed (Magyar vs. German; native French and Briton vs. South Asian, African, and Slav; Russian Slav vs. Polish and German; everyone vs. Brussels [well, OK, that’s more political than tribal, mostly]). Within Islamism, local and regional tribal fracture points and lines seem to play major roles with Al Qaeda vs. ISIS, ISIS vs. the Shia of Iran and the Alwites of Syria, the Iranians and Saudis almost agreeing with each other about ISIS . . . Watching the mass migration this past year has been like reading about the Völkerwanderung of the 400s-800s into Europe, or the migrations that contributed to the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in the early 1600s in China.
Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance day. On the 50th anniversary, a fellow college student’s serious question of “What’s Pearl Harbor?” led to my diving even deeper into military history, while also getting up to my nose in aircraft restoration. I do not, personally, remember Pearl Harbor. My parents were both born in 1942. My grandparents remembered hearing the news on the radio, just as I heard about Sept 11. Pearl Harbor put the final nail into the idea that WWI had been the War to End All Wars, although if you go back into the newspapers, war coverage dominated the news starting in 1939. The same was not true with the years leading up to Sept. 11th, unless you lived in Israel or certain parts of Lebanon.
Perhaps the greatest commonality between Pearl Harbor and “my generation’s Pearl Harbor” is the reminder that peace is temporary, at least in this sublunary world. Some people were not surprised by either attack. History did not end in 1918, or 1938, or 1989. Alas.