In this bicentennial year of the War of 1812, the StarSpangledBaltimore.com website tells us:
"The War of 1812 represents what many see as the definitive end of the American Revolution. A new nation, widely regarded as an upstart, successfully defended itself against the largest, most powerful navy in the world during the maritime assault on Baltimore and Maryland. America's victory over Great Britain confirmed the legitimacy of the Revolution."
But the revolution had ended three decades before 1812, and the choice to launch a new war was made by the U.S. government in Washington, D.C.
In the lead-up to the War of 1812, the British and Americans exchanged attacks along the Canadian border and in the open seas. Native Americans also exchanged attacks with U.S. settlers, although who was invading whom is a question we've never wanted to face. But the choice to launch a full-scale war was not made by the "largest, most powerful navy in the world"; it was made by the national government that we now depict as fighting defensively in Baltimore.
Maritime offenses, skirmishes, and trade disagreements can be resolved diplomatically, continued at the same low level, or expanded into much more massive killing and destruction. These are options our government still faces today. In 1812, the choice of war resulted in the burning of our national capital, the death in action of some 3,800 U.S. and British fighters, and the death of 20,000 U.S. and British from all causes, including disease. About 76 were killed in the Battle of Baltimore, plus another 450 wounded. Nowadays an incident in Baltimore that resulted in that kind of carnage would be described with words other than "exciting," "glorious," and "successful."
And what was gained that could balance out the damage done? Absolutely nothing.
The forgotten goal of the most passionate promoters of launching the War of 1812 had nothing to do with defending Baltimore. The goal was the conquest of Canada. Congressman Samuel Taggart (F., Mass.), in protest of a closed-door congressional debate, published a speech in the Alexandria Gazette on June 24, 1812, in which he remarked:
"The conquest of Canada has been represented to be so easy as to be little more than a party of pleasure. We have, it has been said, nothing to do but to march an army into the country and display the standard of the United States, and the Canadians will immediately flock to it and place themselves under our protection. They have been represented as ripe for revolt, panting for emancipation from a tyrannical Government, and longing to enjoy the sweets of liberty under the fostering hand of the United States."
Taggart went on to present reasons why such a result was by no means to be expected, and of course he was right. But being right is of little value when war fever takes hold.
Vice President Dick Cheney, on March 16, 2003, made a similar claim about Iraqis, despite himself having pointed out its error on television nine years earlier when he had explained why the United States had not invaded Baghdad during the Gulf War. (Cheney, at that time, may have left some factors unstated, such as the real fear back then of chemical or biological weapons, as compared with the pretense of that fear in 2003.) Cheney said of his coming second attack on Iraq in 2003:
"Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators."
A year earlier, Ken Adelman, former arms control director for President Ronald Reagan, said "liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk."
This expectation, whether a pretense or sincere and truly stupid, didn't work out in Iraq, and didn't work out two centuries ago in Canada.
The Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979 with the same stupid expectation of being welcomed as friends, and the United States repeated the same mistake there beginning in 2001. Of course, such expectations would never work out for a foreign army in the United States either, no matter how admirable the people invading us might be or how miserable they might find us.
What if Canada and Iraq had indeed welcomed U.S. occupations? Would that have produced anything to outweigh the horror of the wars? Norman Thomas, author of War: No Glory, No Profit, No Need, (1935) speculated as follows:
"[S]uppose the United States in the War of 1812 had succeeded in its very blundering attempt to conquer all or part of Canada. Unquestionably we should have school histories to teach us how fortunate was the result of that war for the people of Ontario and how valuable a lesson it finally taught the British about the need for enlightened rule! Yet, to-day the Canadians who remain within the British Empire would say they have more real liberty than their neighbors to the south of the border!"
If our culture survives until 2203 can we expect a bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Baghdad? And if so, will alternative perspectives -- such as the one I like to call reality -- be included?
If we were wiser we would celebrate the many years in which Baltimore has not known war. Frederick Douglass learned how to read in Baltimore. Activists struggling nonviolently for justice have a rich history in Baltimore.
Can we get beyond the national war anthem to any of the many things truly worth celebrating?