PARLIAMENT HILL—Cabinet members, soft and chauffeured, proclaim a summer celebration of death in battle—not that they’ve seen it first-hand. Non-combatants outnumber veterans in Cabinet by 37-to-one, excluding Environment Minister Peter Kent who as a war correspondent covered the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
Most combat veterans rate war an obscenity. On Parliament Hill, it is cast as a thrilling test of national manhood. Heritage Minister James Moore, neither a veteran nor historian, explained it to reporters last week:
Reporter: “Do we have any plans to commemorate the Boer War…?”
Moore: “We have a number of anniversaries that we’ll be announcing. And next week we have a very big announcement on Canadian history that I think you’ll like.”
Reporter: “Is there any danger in over-commemorating things? It sort of tends to cheapen the memory. If you start to commemorate everything, then it’s—‘Oh, another commemoration,’ it doesn’t really matter.”
Moore: “Yes, but I think we’re being criticized for being selective, right? So you try to be responsible in the way you approach things. It is a subjective question; it’s in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s less about the number of things that you celebrate and recognize than it is in the manner in which you approach it.…”
Here Moore is correct. An example is the bicentennial of the War of 1812, celebrated through media features and $11.5-million in federal grants.
This is no careful examination of Canada’s past; Cabinet actually cut funding for people who do that at Parks Canada and Library and Archives Canada. “Vandalism,” historian Jack Granatstein calls it; “It shows nothing so much as contempt for the past.”
The War of 1812 was an inconclusive string of skirmishes most remarkable for incompetent generalship and the number of casualties lost to yellow fever, which killed more people than combat. “Victims turned a sickly yellow before they began to vomit black clots of blood and die,” historian Les Standiford wrote in his war account Washington Burning (2008, Crown Publishing).
No bicentennial observances cite the plague. Instead they turn 1812 into pantomime.
The Toronto Star published a 16-part series that mentions battle flags, brave aboriginals and Laura Secord, the Loyalist heroine who died in obscurity. Secord did not emerge as a folk figure until 90 years after her exploits, when her story was resurrected by Victorian-era Ontario Protestants in a celebration of Empire.
Many pundits resort to platitudes. The Globe and Mail called 1812 “an inspirational back story to nationhood”; The Winnipeg Free Press hailed it as “a decisive event in Canadian history”; the Toronto Sun told readers “the War of 1812 paved the way for Confederation.” Of course this is gibberish; the development of Marquis Wheat had greater impact on the life of the nation. There is no appetite for celebrations of public investment in scientific research.
This military fetishism is not unique to 1812.
The oddest instance was Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney’s recent tribute to Canadian service in the 1899 Boer War—a “proud” moment, he called it. In that war, 28,000 civilians, mostly children, died under forced detention in what U.K. prime minister David Lloyd George called “a policy of extermination.” Boer War hero Lord Baden-Powell, later the founder of the Boy Scouts, wrote in his diary that “as a rule, the niggers seem to me cringing villains.” He kept as a war souvenir a photograph of a lynching (see The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon, 2008 Knopf).
Blaney understandably did not mention this unpleasantness in his Boer War tribute.
We are not the only ones to romanticize battle.
The U.S. Civil War is a topic so sentimental—there is even a Civil War Cook Book—a band of historians recently published a compilation of essays simply to remind readers of the conflict’s true animal brutality. There was famine and arson and suicide, and the mania of 1860s-era Americans for souvenirs like battlefield bones carved into napkin rings; “One soldier swore on his wedding day he would press his lips to his prized relic—a Yankee’s skull—and from it drink brandy” (see Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges, edited by Stephen Berry, 2011 University of George Press).
With whitewash in hand, we now commemorate 1812.
Vancouver saw almost $1-million spent on a public Canada Place exhibit to “bring the heroes and stories of the War of 1812 to life”—though the conflict did not come within 4,000 km of Vancouver. The Windsor Star published this social note: “At the Pelee Island Winery…Tom Omstead will read from his novel The Red Wing Sings, a thriller where a nuclear catastrophe parallels events from the War of 1812.”
Enthusiasts plan 1812 re-enactments, a public exhibition of fakery in which photogenic college students are hired to play dead. I’ve scripted historical documentaries for television and never once used re-enactments since they do not “document” fact. Any true 1812 recreation would require that actors be 5’3”, with smallpox scars and bad teeth, forced to gum half-cooked cornmeal, sleep in mud and die of gangrene.
As historian and journalist Mark Bourrie observed in Ottawa Magazine, “This waste of money is not about history. It’s about propaganda, parades, playing dress-up and pretending we fought for our independence when, in fact, we earned it by developing solid democratic political institutions, including a free press.”
Added Bourrie: “Unless they’re using live ammunition at the re-enactment of the Battle of Lake Erie or Lundy’s Lane, count me out.”
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