MAY 20, 2012, MILITARIZED CHICAGO -- Next month in Baltimore they're going to celebrate the War of 1812. That's what we do with wars. We say they're the last resort. We say they're hell. We say they're for the purpose of eliminating themselves: we fight wars for peace. Although we never keep peace for wars. We claim to wage only wars we have been forced into despite all possible effort to find a better way. And then we celebrate the wars. We keep the wars going for their own sake after all the excuses we used to get them started have expired. The WMDs have not been found. Osama bin Laden's been killed. Al Qaeda is gone from the country where we're fighting it. Nobody's threatening Benghazi anymore. But the wars must go on! And then we'll celebrate them. And we'll celebrate the old ones too, the ones that were fought here, the ones that were in their day not quite so heavily painted as last resorts or humanitarian missions.
Last year Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee persuaded Congress to create an Iraq-Afghanistan Wars holiday. It's on our calendars now along with Loyalty Day (formerly May Day), Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day), Memorial Day, Yellow Ribbon Day, Patriots Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Pearl Harbor Day, and of course September 11th, among many others. Last week there was an Armed Forces Spouses Appreciation Day. The military holiday calendar is like the Catholic saints' days now: there's something every day of the year.
But there's no celebration of the times we avoided war. We claim to prefer peace to war, but we don't make heroes of those presidents or Congresses who most avoided war. In fact, we erase them. Our history books jump from war to war as if nothing happened in between. Nobody celebrates 1811, only 1812. Even the peace movement doesn't celebrate the past decade's prevention, thus far, of a war on Iran.
Some might say that once an unavoidable war begins we have to celebrate the brave sacrifices of the soldiers and sailors. Even if the war was a bad idea, we can't blame those who participated in it. They were too ignorant and obedient to do otherwise, but they were brave and loyal. We weren't in their shoes. We had other means to pay for college. So we are obliged to celebrate their moral failings. We must value bravery and loyalty above intelligent independent thinking. And, because they ignorantly and obediently supported the war, we must do so too -- even if we honestly don't.
As if there is not bravery, solidarity, and self-sacrifice to be celebrated in our history of nonviolent protest, labor struggles, women's struggles, the environmentalist movement, and in resistance to war -- in all the efforts that have improved and are improving our lives. Freedom isn't free, as the saying goes, but we don't honor the work that actually achieves it. " War will exist," President Kennedy privately wrote, "until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today." And here's the hard part of that: the conscientious objector will not be honored and respected as long as the warrior is. We have to choose.
Thousands have refused to deploy or refused to fight in our current wars, gone AWOL, or hidden out rather than harassing the occupied populations for a day. They have no medals, no ribbons, no holiday, and never enough support or gratitude. They should be honored. We should appreciate Veterans For Peace because they are for peace, not because they are veterans.
Frederick Douglas taught himself to read in Baltimore, a far more significant event than a flag surviving a barrage of cannon balls. But 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." Wow. That sounds significant, even noble.
In reality, the U.S. government chose to launch the War of 1812 three decades after the revolution had ended. Many nations have won their independence without war. War leaves behind bitter hatred and resentment of the sort now raging in Libya, albeit out of the news. Prior to the War of 1812, the United States had built up a navy to go and fight in what we now call Libya, introducing suicide bombing by sailing a ship into port there and blowing it up. The United States wanted to trade with the world. The British objected, captured U.S. ships, and forced the men on board to sail for Britain. That offense, combined with war fever lingering from a generation back, became grounds for war. But there were other reasons, including the drive to take more land from Native Americans, to conquer Florida, and to add Canada to the fledgling U.S. empire.