It’s a big war in Canada

Jon Carroll
October 10, 2012

No one gets very excited about the War of 1812. At least, not until recently. When I took history in high school, the War of 1812 was kind of skipped over. I suspect that’s because we didn’t win it. My history teacher favored wars that America won.

And then there’s the Civil War, which America both won and lost. I learned about the Civil War from the Union point of view, so my history teacher took a sort of triumphalist view of that too. This didn’t go over well with the one student from the South.

That kid called it the War Between the States. I didn’t understand the difference at the time. In California, we weren’t too attached to any war. It was something other people did to other people. We just wanted peace and sunshine. We got both.

The British didn’t win the War of 1812, even though we didn’t win it either. It was sort of a military stalemate followed by discussions. The British, as I understand it, abandoned the war because that pesky Napoleon was roaming around Europe. Or maybe it was because wartime taxes were considered onerous by the British people, and the war itself inconvenient to trans-Atlantic merchants.

It all ended with the Treaty of Ghent. Highlights included the burning of Washington, after which the British turned around and went away; and the Battle of New Orleans, a famous American victory that ended after the war was officially over. The Battle of New Orleans gave us Andrew Jackson, one of our semi-great presidents.

Important enough to be on the money, but not important enough to be mentioned in campaign speeches.

The other thing the War of 1812 gave us was “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was written during the siege of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, during the same campaign in which Washington was burned. Actually, it only gave us the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was set to a famously unsingable English drinking song.

Imagine viewing a major naval battle while having the tune playing between your ears. “I shall write patriotic lyrics,” said Francis Scott Key, and in a trice it was done.

The New York Times this week published an article about the increased popularity of the War of 1812. This year is the 200th anniversary of that war, and things are getting a little heated north of the border – which is odd, because Canada wasn’t even a nation when the War of 1812 was fought.

However, plucky proto-Canadians did beat back American attempts to invade the territory that would one day be Canada, and that’s apparently enough.

From the Times:

“As sweeping government budget cuts affect historic sites and national parks, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set aside about $28 million for events, advertising and exhibitions to commemorate the war. The government’s enthusiasm has puzzled and angered many people here, where flag-waving forms of patriotism are more subdued than they are south of the border.

” ‘Two hundred years ago, the United States invaded our territory,’ a narrator says over dark images and ominous music in the government’s ad. ‘But we defended our land; we stood side by side and won the fight for Canada.’ ”

As noted, some people in Canada were embarrassed by the nationalist fervor surrounding the bicentennial, particularly since the War of 1812 did not involve any nation called Canada. They think that the Conservative prime minister is trying to invoke a new, more militaristic national image.

Under Harper, Canada has moved away from doing Canadianish kinds of things, like being a member of various U.N. peacekeeping forces, and toward things like putting Canadian boots next to American boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

(Are we really looking at the birth of Warmonger Canada? Experts suggest not.)

Why the sudden emphasis on the War of 1812? The Times again: “The answer, according to James Moore, who as minister of Canadian heritage is in charge of the campaign, is that the government simply wants the long-ago war, which few Canadians know well, to be remembered.

” ‘Canada was invaded, the invasion was repelled and we endured, but we endured in partnership with the United States,’ Mr. Moore said. ‘It’s a very compelling story.’ ”

I don’t find that a compelling story, candidly. Feisty native settlers beating back drooling American hordes: I think that could be a compelling story. And I suspect that’s what the Canadians will get, one way or another.

In which bloodthirsty Americans set their slavering sights on Canada.

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