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What’s Wrong With Celebrating the War of 1812?

Posted by Thomas Peace
20 May 2012 - 9:09am

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.