Some wars are horrible but necessary, such as the Second World War. Others are horrible but stupid, such as the War of 1812.
In the annals of war, the 1812-1814 conflict was among the dumbest ever fought. It featured largely bad military leadership, vague objectives, scattered and messy battles and, critically, sizable elements on both sides of the Canadian-U.S. border that wanted the other side to win.
In the cardboard version of history taught in Canada (and the U.S.), the war was good guys against bad guys: the noble (or ignoble) British against the freedom-loving (or aggressor) Americans. We have Isaac Brock (the only competent general on either side during the entire war) and Laura Secord; the Americans have Commodore Oliver Perry and General Andrew Jackson.
In the U.S., Republicans were eager for war against Britain, whose government had authorized the boarding of American ships seeking British nationals to be returned to the British navy. Such an affront against the sovereignty of the new U.S. republic required a response: the taking of the British colonies in Canada. U.S. Federalists disagreed mightily. Britain was fighting the greater enemy, Napoleonic France. A war with Britain was against the wrong enemy, in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons.
Thousands of Americans had emigrated to what’s now Canada to take advantage of the offer of free land. Although they were forced to swear allegiance to the British Crown, many of them sympathized with the republican ideals of their native country. They would have been happy if the Americans had won the war.
It was, therefore, a messy war with sharp divisions within each country that dragged native peoples into the conflict, so that they, too, were fighting among themselves. As usual, they got nothing from war, except death and broken promises.
Commemorating this war, then, risks turning it into an exercise not of accurate historical account but of contemporary nationalistic propaganda. To this danger can be added the Harper government’s relentless attempt to appropriate and invent symbols of Canadian pride, and to associate itself with them, fresh witness to which is the setting aside of nearly $12-million over the next three years for an 1812 Commemoration Fund.
Before a penny is spent from this fund, everyone associated with it, and as many Canadians and Americans as possible, should read Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812. On turning the last page of this outstanding book, any fair-minded reader would call time out on the Commemoration Fund.
They would demand that the commemoration be called off entirely, or that the money be spent teaching people on both sides what really happened and what a folly the whole thing was. Better still, the money, were it to be spent at all, should be to remind us not of this North American war between the U.S. Republic and an outpost of the British Empire (there was no sense of being “Canadian” at the time) but of two centuries of uninterrupted and merciful peace.
Mr. Taylor has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize for American history. So his intellectual pedigree is superb. His field of interest is the history of the borderland area between Canada and the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although American, he’s scrupulously fair; indeed, his depictions of U.S. military ineptitude and political squabbling won’t endear him to tub-thumping patriots south of the border. The plundering and pillaging by American soldiers in Canada, especially after the burning of York (now Toronto), withered sympathy for the U.S. cause in Upper Canada. This being war, of course, the British and their Indian allies responded in kind as they thrust into the Michigan Territory and the Niagara River Valley.
People in Canada who preferred a U.S. victory sent intelligence information to invading Americans; Federalists in the U.S. supplied intelligence to British forces. There was a cross-border war, and there was a civil war within each side. Chances are, this critical element won’t be highlighted in the cardboard version promoted by the Commemoration Fund.