Exactly seven months from today, Americans will mark the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A number of media events will surround that occasion, including a Tom Brokaw-hosted TV special. But even now the commemoration is underway. If you've been to a movie theater lately, you've probably seen the trailer for "Pearl Harbor," a cinematic extravaganza scheduled to open on Memorial Day.

As if to launch a preemptive strike on the pieties of official ceremonies, the self-conscious gravity of documentaries, and the high-tech confections of Hollywood, John Gregory Dunne has written a piece for the May 7 issue of The New Yorker, an acid-penned article called "The American Raj: Pearl Harbor as Metaphor."

Like his wife, Joan Didion, Dunne is a superb writer motivated above all by a hatred of cant, hypocrisy, and self-serving naivete. Whatever the subject of a particular work by Dunne, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, the ultimate purpose is the same: to show How Things Really Are, to rub his readers' noses in it, and to expose the falseness of this or that comfortable illusion.

The primary illusion Dunne intends to expose in the New Yorker piece is nothing less than the myth of American exceptionalism. That is the master lie, so to speak, from which many smaller lies follow. Hence his title, "The American Raj," which one would have thought was clear enough. But just in case some reader misses the point, Dunne's piece appears under a kicker, "Annals of Empire," which drives the lesson home: the United States rules over an empire, gotten by hook or by crook, just as the British did in India. The American sense of a distinctive national virtue is repugnant, and dangerous to boot.

Take the case of Pearl Harbor. In ...

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