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,
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
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
"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
While the American failure in the north meant that the United States
would never seriously threaten British interests in North America again,
it also meant that Washington would direct its expansionist energies more
fruitfully westward and southward against the Indians, Spain and Mexico.
"The war confirmed certain American messianic views about the
continent, views the U.S. still holds," Professor Clarkson said.
The documentary shares this opinion, although it puts it in a more
admiring light in speaking of leaders who would "lead the nation to its
manifest destiny." Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore hints at an even
greater measure of divine inevitability to the American war effort when he
tells in "First Invasion" of a storm that extinguishes the fires in
Washington and batters the British troops there.
"We now know a tornado actually touches down, like the wrathful hand of
God from the Old Testament," Mr. O'Malley says, "and inflicts more
casualties in the middle of that British column."
So, rather than the American defeat that Canadians see or the draw that
was the actual result of the war - the peace treaty restored the prewar
status quo and laid the foundation for the demilitarization of the
American-Canadian border - "First Invasion" posits an American victory,
possibly aided by the deity himself. It is an uplifting message for a
post-Sept. 11 American audience.
"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
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
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."
Copyright 2004 The
New York Times Company |
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