What’s Wrong With Celebrating the War of 1812?

This is the third in a weekly series of posts leading up to the mini-conference The War of 1812: Whose War was it Anyway? being held at the University of Waterloo on May 30th.

By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Warmonger politicians customarily indulge in high rhetoric, attempting to rally the citizenry round the flag and boost the bloodletting. Or when invoking the glories of past wars. The War of 1812 was no exception.

Those who witness war’s gruesome reality often remember things differently, as do many historians.

“It would be a useful lesson to cold-blooded politicians, who calculate on a war costing so many lives and so many limbs as they would on a horse costing so many pounds,” wrote embittered battlefield surgeon William ‘Tiger’ Dunlop, “to witness such a scene, if only for one hour.”

In his 1847 memoir of Upper Canada, Dunlop recalled treating the wounded, often by amputation. The scene he recommended to callous statesmen unfolded in the withering heat of the ramshackle Butler’s Barracks at Fort George, down the Niagara River from Queenston Heights. Flies lighted on the wounded, depositing their eggs so quickly that “maggots were bred in a few hours, producing dreadful irritation…..”

Dunlop worked 48 hours straight before literally falling asleep on his feet. One of the 220 wounded he came upon in a single morning was a gray-haired American farmer whose wife had helped him to struggle across to the enemy side, seeking treatment under a flag of truce. She was a “respectable elderly woman,” her husband either a militia man or a camp follower. She held his head in her lap as he slowly expired.

“O that the King and the President were both here this moment to see the misery their quarrels lead to,” Dunlop recalled her moaning. “They surely would never go to war without a cause that they could give as a reason to God on the last day, for thus destroying the creatures he has made in his own image.”

Dunlop, later a prominent politician and magistrate remembered the military incompetence of poorly planned deployment of medical men like himself as “one of the many blunders of this blundering war.”

Two hundred years later Canada’s Prime Minister remembers the War of 1812 as “the beginning of a long and proud military history in Canada.” Stephen Harper has decided to commemorate the War of 1812 with a $28 million heritage extravaganza, selling what Pierre Berton called a “bloody and senseless conflict” to the citizenry for the simple reason that it was a war. That’s because Harper and his New Warrior supporters among historians, journalists and sundry militarists are attempting to establish war as the pith and essence of all Canadian history.

Military metaphysics, the presentation of war in a pleasing and glorious fashion, are a mere prelude to sure-to-be-much-bigger-and-more-glorious commemorations in the next few years.  The centenary of World War I looms large in the minds of militarists and the far right as they set about priming Canadians for the celebration of Vimy and all the rest. It will romanticize that ghastly spasm of ineptitude in the service of a “Birth of a Nation” story, all the while airbrushing out its incalculable costs.

The celebration of the War of 1812 will cost Ottawa $28 million – enough to operate its recently eliminated Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory for eighteen years. But the New Warrior government has its priorities, among them underlining the importance of yet another milestone in the history of barbarity.

According to Stephen Harper, or more likely one of his hirelings, the war helped establish Canada’s “path toward becoming an independent and free country…. The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”

This though there was no such thing as Canada at the time. The famously undefended border has become a militarized “security perimeter.” And few Canadians are known to indulge in patriotic displays of flag-waving.

No matter. In 2012 Canada is being treated to sanitized glorifications and events designed to attract tourists. In early June the anniversary of the Battle of Stoney Creek will bring scores of re-enactors to suburban Hamilton. There will be music, costumes, games, readings and tours. And certainly musket fire.

It is uncertain whether New York historian Douglas DeCroix’s summary of the dust-up at Stoney Creek will feature in the festivities. The battle, he explained, was “in many ways representative of the War of 1812 in microcosm. The American commanders are captured. The British commander gets lost in the woods. The Americans are technically defeated but retain the field. The British are victorious but they retreat.”

Such is not the message being peddled by Ottawa. Nor will we be reminded how profoundly the British double-crossed their crucial allies. Although Tecumseh is celebrated as a hero, the fact that First Nations  people were the war’s real losers tends to be downplayed. After 1814, with the Treaty of Ghent in which the British negotiators betrayed the native claims, the First Nations came to be treated as “Wards of the State,” not separate entities. And the dream of a kind of native-controlled polity in the heart of North America — to which the British had given their tentative support — was gone for good.

What remains is the war’s curious paradox – reflected in New Warrior attempts to commemorate the American invasion and the violence it provoked. This became clear in early 2003 as a surge of protest against the impending American invasion of another country  had culminated in the largest demonstrations in the history of the world.

Just as American and British troops rolled into Iraq, right-wing zealots in the Niagara region organized a “Canadians for Bush” rally, picking an odd spot for their modest get together — Brock’s Monument at Queenston. The irony seemed lost on the prominent politicians who attended. They included Ontario cabinet ministers Jim Flaherty and Tim Hudak as well as former Canadian Alliance leader and prime ministerial candidate Stockwell Day.

Day’s new boss, Stephen Harper, really did want Canada to follow George W. Bush into a war that would, as so many were predicting at the time, turn into a murderous and catastrophic blunder.

Harper had told a similar, Their-Country-Right-Or-Wrong rally in Toronto that he supported “the liberation of the people of Iraq. Let us pledge today, that in the future, when our American and British friends and our friends around the world take on the cause of freedom and democracy, we will never again allow ourselves to be isolated.”

Pierre Berton, the most successful popularizer of the Canadian story and a notable chronicler of his country’s wars, concluded his two-volume history of the War of 1812 by pointing out that “Political and military leaders constantly used the clichés of warfare to justify bloodshed and rampage. Words like honour…liberty…independence…freedom were dragged out to rally the troops, most of whom, struggling to save their skins, knew them to be empty.”

Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, explores these themes in considerable depth. It will be published by Between The Lines Press in May.  Special thanks to Elliot Hanowski.

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7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Celebrating the War of 1812?

  1. Andrew Overton

    Obviously the author does not understand the difference between a war of agression and a war of defense. Well let me tell you something the world is not just black and white; should the lives of those who defended Canada against foreign invasion be celebrated in this mannor? There is also an ironic contradiction in the given argument. If Canadians didn’t defend themselves against the invasion in 1812 we would be ruled by war-monger Americans…so perhapse for that reason the acts of these brave young men and women should be delebrated.

  2. Sarah

    um ya… the war of 1812 was fought by the colonies vs the americans… not canadians vs americans. I’d rather celebrate the happy things in our country not the wars.

  3. A.S.

    This article is full of the sort of nonsense one would expect from an old Marxist hack like McKay. “…there was no such thing as Canada at the time.” What an idiotic statement. Of course Canada, as a country in the traditional sense of that word with inhabitants who self-identified as “Canadian” and “Canadien” existed in 1812. Anyone who has bothered to read primary documents from the era would know this. Regiments like the “Royal Canadian Volunteers” which consisted of both French and English Canadians, had been around since the 1790s. Strange that there would be “Royal Canadian Volunteers” or “Canadian Fencibles” if “there was no such thing as Canada at that time.” The notion that Canada was just some blank slate pre-1867 is exactly the sort of historical illiteracy the study of the War of 1812 can help to rectify. Nor do McKay and Swift seem to understand the difference between commemorating a war and celebrating a war. If Mckay or Swift actually bothered to visit a single bicentenial event or War of 1812 historical site, they might discover that without exception the war is commemorated rather than celebrated. I suppose such a nuanced view of the past is beyond McKay’s and Swift’s worldview. The War of 1812 and its legacy is not about Stephen Harper or his colleagues’ misguided views on Iraq or the Middle East, nor it is not about McKay and his ideological pandering. If Harper is gulity of politicizing the memory of 1812, than McKay and Swift are equally guilty. Fortunately, the Canadian public at large, whatever the delusions of our current government and professors like McKay, generally view the War of 1812 as the awful moment in history when this country was invaded by a hostile foreign power bent on conquest and plunder, in which a nucleus of Canadians, Native peoples, and British soldiers successfully defended the country.

  4. Kyle

    Canada was NOT a country during the War of 1812, no matter how you would like to justify it with the use of titles, names etc. The country that is now Canada takes up the territory called Upper Canada (modern day Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), in addition to Nova Scotia and the Maritime region. To quote A.S ” The notion that Canada was just some blank slate pre-1867 is exactly the sort of historical illiteracy the study of the War of 1812 can help to rectify,” is plainly and unequivocally wrong. The study of the War of 1812 is not to justify that there was a Canada at the time, or that the War of 1812 was a pivotal moment in “Canadian” history. The study of the War of 1812 is a starting off point in the study of pre-confederation history in Canada, not the starting point of Canada as a nation.

  5. Mike

    Except for the fact that it was British military impressment upon American sailors and contradictory policies that enable sailors, slaves and soldiers to use the Anglo-American border as a way to emancipated themselves or get out of military service. This was done on both aide but the British were ruthless and dominant in their dominance of the seas prior to the war and utilized thus advantage to impress hundreds of American sailors and it was this more than anything else that led to the war. Thus it was British imperial policy that essential started the war in the first place and how is America anymore warmongering than the British Empire? I agree that most do commemorate and do not celebrate the war of 1812, yet most people only want to look at the perspective given by government officials and nation historians who do not wish to fully understand.or explain events they only wish to entertain, not educate and this is what this article is really about!

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