The Over-Hyped Parallels Between the War of 1812 and 9-11

Roundup: Talking About History

Jeff Z. Klein, in the NYT (Sept. 11, 200):.

The War of 1812 has lain mostly dormant in the American imagination for generations, its memory invoked only rarely, as in Johnny Horton's 1959 hit version of"The Battle of New Orleans" ("we fired once more, and the British kept a-comin'") or in periodic retellings of the story of"The Star-Spangled Banner." Otherwise, the war remains an overlooked episode in American history, perhaps because it ended in a draw.

But the History Channel has been doing its best to make Americans remember the conflict, heavily promoting"First Invasion: The War of 1812," a two-hour documentary that it will show at 9 tomorrow night. Why this obscure war now? The key lies in the first part of the title. It is the documentary's contention that the War of 1812 teaches a lesson about the invasion of the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

That connection is explicitly drawn in the opening moments of the documentary when the words"September 11" fill the black screen over the sound of explosions and alarm bells and the voiceover intones ominously,"America is on the brink of annihilation." The screen then brightens to show cannon and soldiers in period costume, and the title changes to"September 11, 1814" - the date British forces advanced on Baltimore after burning Washington.

According to the documentary's view of the war, the fledgling republic perseveres against the enormous odds stacked against it by the powerful British military and its own disorganization. And if"First Invasion" backs off the Sept. 11 parallel soon after the opening, it does see the war as an inspiring lesson for Americans in a time of crisis.

"It is a story of courage, endurance and a little bit of luck," the narration says."Forged by fire, united by will, a young nation defied the odds - and won."

But the documentary, from Native Sun Productions, tells the story of the War of 1812 selectively, leaving out large portions that would show American conduct in the war in a less successful and less glorious light.

"First Invasion" details the British seizure and impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, a direct casus belli for the United States. But it only fleetingly mentions American designs on Ontario and Quebec and efforts to drive Indian tribes allied with the British out of the western Great Lakes. It discusses New England's opposition to the war because of its commercial ties to Britain, but fails to discuss Southern congressmen's staunch support for the war, perhaps tied to fears that abolitionist Britain might curtail the slave trade.

And while the documentary goes into great detail about the destruction wrought by British forces on Washington and Baltimore in 1814, it glosses over the unsuccessful and bloody American campaign in Ontario in 1812 and 1813, which included the burning and sacking of several towns. (The British burning of Washington was retaliation for the Americans' burning of York.) Indeed, the narration refers to the American incursion not as an invasion but as merely an attack.

In the end, as much as anything about the war that is its subject,"First Invasion" teaches a lesson about the uses to which history can be put.

"In Canada, we learn that we successfully resisted your invasion, and that laid the groundwork for what would eventually become our nation," said Jack Granatstein, the former director of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa."We won the War of 1812 by not losing."

Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, remembers being surprised the first time he encountered the American view of the war."A student showed me an American book on it about 15 years ago," he said,"and it conveyed the idea that it had been this glorious victory when, in fact, it was a defeat in an attempt to conquer Canada."...

"We'd been working on this since 1988," said Gary L. Foreman, the director of "First Invasion," "and we'd already identified Sept. 11, 1814, as the key date when Americans finally came together to defend their country. But I remember soon after the 9/11 attacks, all the television commentators referencing the War of 1812 as the last time a foreign power attacked the territorial U.S., but they couldn't articulate anything about it. That's when the History Channel saw the relevance of our project and the idea that not only does history repeat itself, but that we live on a fragile thread of existence."

Others also found a morale-boosting lesson in the War of 1812 after Sept. 11.

In The New York Times Magazine two weeks after the attacks, the novelist Caleb Carr saw the British expeditionary force of 1814 as a direct precursor to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The British, he wrote, attacked the United States and burned Washington "because of a deep anxiety over the spread of American democratic republicanism." Similarly, "it is the spread of American values," he continued, "that terrorist groups and the traditionalist, socially repressive societies that support them now fear. This fear has driven them to emulate the British forces of 1814 by damaging and destroying a group of structures that are among the most familiar symbols of contemporary American power."

If it is true that the War of 1812 somehow provides a geopolitical lesson for today, the nature of that lesson may not be as clear-cut as Mr. Carr or "First Invasion" sees it.

"What does 1812 teach us?" asked Wesley Turner, the Canadian author of "The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won." "Well, that you think you can conquer little countries, and it's not so easy."

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