Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Virtual Chamber Pot War

To commemorate the forthcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy is organizing a media and public-events campaign highlighting its role in the conflict. According to the Washington Post, these include a commemorative book and Twitter feed, a web video starring Richard Dreyfuss, several Tall Ships displays, and an interactive online game "allowing children to experience virtual life at sea by emptying chamber pots off the side of a ship." No, really.

The article notes that during the current era of defense cutbacks, the Navy is trying to use the 1812 bicentennial to revive public interest in its mission. This seems misguided to me on two counts:

First, Americans only care about two or three of their wars, and the War of 1812 isn't on the list. Americans remain fascinated by the Civil War, because many associate it with a chivalrous feudal civilization tragically crushed by a modern industrial society. (That this is a myth goes without saying, but most people prefer the legend.) We also like remembering World War Two because we got to fight Nazis, and because tanks and planes are fun. The Vietnam War is still remembered by Americans because it wrecked the lives of so many Baby Boomers, but few people in this country actually celebrate it. That's about all. No-one today much cares about the War for American Independence, as important as it was, because the causes for which the combatants were fighting seem arid and legalistic. The Mexican War and Spanish-American War remain largely forgotten, except that the latter evinces an image of Teddy Roosevelt in a cowboy hat. Modern Americans also care little about the First World War, the First Gulf War, and (pace M*A*S*H) the Korean War. The late unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan will probably fade into obscurity in twenty years' time. And the War of 1812? Who cares, apart from me, Don Hickey, and the benighted Canadians? It was merely a three-year episode of incompetence and hooliganism, best forgotten by anyone who wants to retain any respect for the United States.

Secondly, the U.S. Navy actually performed rather badly in the War of 1812. Individual ships fared well in single-ship duels with British frigates, but the Navy as a whole could not prevent the Royal Navy from blockading the American coast and strangling the U.S. economy. The only strategic naval victory won by the U.S. during the war was the Battle of Lake Erie, which gave the U.S. control of that vital waterway during the 1813 campaign. Otherwise the Navy merely won a little glory while failing, as it was bound to fail (given Britain's overwhelming naval superiority), to defend the shores of the homeland. This is perhaps the wrong example to give to a Congress and a people who are growing tired of spending billions of dollars on nuclear-powered supercarriers, and who legitimately wonder what purpose such vessels serve in an era of drone warfare and terrorism. If the Navy wants to build support for its mission, perhaps it would be better off sticking to subliminal messages buried in boy-band music videos.