War of 1812: What's behind the gaudy celebration of a 200-year-old war?

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I prepped for the outbreak of birthday festivities for the War of 1812 -- they start today in Toronto and Monday marks 200 years since the U.S. declared war on the British Empire -- by watching the last episodes of this season's Justified. It's based on crime writer Elmore Leonard's stories about Raylan Givens, U.S. marshal. They're set in Kentucky today, and are highly violent and primitive. All growing boys get a gun, and some girls. "I killed one Crowder, I'll kill another," says Raylan's 18-year-old girlfriend to the meth king of Harlan county. Fathers and sons hate, shoot and kill each other without sentiment, though there are rules. ("I ain't goin' anywhere, they killed my daddy," says Crowder fils. "You came here to kill your daddy," says Raylan. "That's different," is the answer.)

Watching it may help think your way into how Canadians felt in our part of that war -- southwestern Ontario and the Niagara peninsula -- where Kentuckians were a major source of fear, and some of them don't seem to have changed much. The state experienced a "delirium of celebration" at the declaration of war, wrote Pierre Berton in his two-volume history; so many Kentuckians volunteered that lots had to be sent home. There were towns along the Mississippi where their reputation was "more terrifying than that of Indians." The parallel fear on the U.S. side was over the "savages," led by Tecumseh, who allied with the British. They caused so much panic among Americans that Fort Detroit surrendered without a fight, to Tecumseh and Gen. Isaac Brock. What First Nations people felt is another story: watching an endless flow of invaders with ever-new weaponry, who refused to recognize their right to exist in their own lands. It led to that shrewd but ultimately ineffective alliance.

1812 was really a pretty disconnected set of clashes, all peripheral to the final phase of the Napoleonic wars in Europe: some combat between regulars, naval battles on the Great Lakes, a fierce British attack on Washington -- but the fighting around here was more like recent, ragged, ill-defined conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan than the set-pieces between armies at Waterloo or the World Wars.

We know the Harper government has put a big push behind the 200th birthday party, as part of their campaign to glamourize Canadian wars (versus the wussy peacekeeping that Liberals were supposedly into). And to justify billions of dollars on jets whose purpose they can't explain, while dismantling support for the unemployed and research into budget items like climate change.

But the glamourization of war is odious not because of what it claims; it's because of what it omits. I knew the kids of a Canadian general who wanted them to know that basically war is about killing people. That isn't exactly a secret but it still manages to hide. It's possible to lose track of the fact, as in sports, that the other side is trying to win too. They don't know you either but they're out to get you and if they feel they're defending their homes while you're far from yours, like Canadians in Afghanistan, you may suddenly comprehend their motives better than your own. That would be pretty scary. I also knew of a decorated World War II vet who told his daughter, when her son was born, to get the hell out of Canada with him if another war ever began.

I'm not saying all wars are avoidable, I'm sure they aren't. But glorifying them goes a step beyond that. The most physically courageous people I've known don't talk much about it; they just do it, if they feel it's necessary. It's tempting to say this gaudy celebration of a war that happened 200 years ago is obnoxious chiefly because it's being done to justify the pointless carnage of young Canadians in Afghanistan -- along with similar, equally pointless adventures yet to come. But the glamourization of any war in any century stands as ugly on its own. Most of those who died back then were young and innocent too.

Still, at least it was a time when governments had the guts to declare war instead of backing into it. Almost makes you nostalgic.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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