"Pearl Harbor surprise: Photo of female firefighters wasn't from Dec. 7"--What Can We Learn from This?

Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter for MSNBC, has written an article on a photograph that many books and news organizations, including MSNBC, mistakenly characterized as women firefighters trying to put out a fire immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, the caption from the original MSBC photoblog on the 70th anniversary of the attack states "Women firefighters direct a hose after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor."

The photo evokes comparisons to the flag raising at Iwo Jima and certainly is an excellent shot representing yet another part of the remarkable and total effort (men, women, military, civilian, all ethnicities, etc.) it took of of the Greatest Generation. 

It turns out, however, that the photo was not taken in the immdediate aftermath of the attack, but likely at some point after the war began (perhaps months or even years later). It's not even clear how it first came to be attributed to the attack on Pearl Harbor and whether it was intentionally deceptive from the beginning or whether, over time and through wishful thinking, it became associated with that tragic day.

As Dedman reports:

So the bottom line: These women were female firefighters at Pearl Harbor, the place. To that extent the photo is authentic. But they weren't fighting a fire when this photograph was taken, and they weren't fighting any fires on Dec. 7, the day we remember every year on Pearl Harbor Day. In addition to Lowe's account, there is strong documentary evidence that this is a Navy publicity photo taken to showcase the roles of women during the war.

The picture evokes the kind of image we want to believe is true: we were all in the war together-- men and women of all ethnicities, fighting a common foe. On a more modern note, it represents the under-appreciated efforts made by women during the war--whose immense sacrifices are often give short shrift. Thus, in this case the sentiment and ignored facts (the important role of women in the war effort) were true--just not their representation in the picture. And yet we wanted to believe it so much so that we were willing to set aside skepticism in examining the photo and its conveniently staged look. It is very easy to ignore telling details, contradictions, and convenient coincidences when we want to believe. Seems to me that is a metaphor for religion generally.

Second, this occurred only 70 years ago, and yet the image was unquestioningly passed off for decades as a real photo of the events immediately after the attack. This is so even though indiduals depicted in the photo were (and are) still alive. No one until now (in the Internet Age) bothered to ask whether the depiction, as described, was true. If we can't get a story straight from 70 years ago with people still alive to tell it and the photos to "prove" it, how can we possibly believe the stories that are told about the life and times of a wandering self-proclaimed prophet who lived 2000 years ago, when none of the authors of the alleged prophet wrote comtemporaneously about the events?

Why do I point this out? After all, there wasn't any real harm in it and it made people feel good.

Because is wasn't true. 

It purported to represent something that it wasn't and it took on more importance in our psyche as a result of manipulation. It was, for all intents and purposes, propoganda, designed to make us believe something is true becuase we want to believe it's true. And that is the essence of what religion does, too.

Or to put it in terms aprospos of the season: religion is the gift of wishful thinking, wrapped in superstition and tied with the bow of ignorance.

So keep the flags of skepticism flying, even in the face of something wishful and familiar.


Views: 176

Comment by Skepticlese on December 13, 2011 at 11:23pm


Thanks for the reply. It's not clear whether the description was intentionally fabricated or if, over the passage of time, someone just misinterpreted the photo and without checking the facts, claimed its provenance back to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In either event, I think my point is still a valid one. Indeed, the danger of religious wishful thinkers is often not the intentional fabricator, but the true believers who are blinded by their faith to facts in opposition to their world view or who make assumptions about things so as to make them consistent with their world view, all without without really digging deeply to determine the truth.  We are even susceptible to it, often viewing things in ways we hope are consistent with our own views. The challenge it to be aware of our own biases and try to account for that in the search for the truth.


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