6.02.2012

every war in history has had resisters, even the war of 1812

It's the 200th anniversary of The War of 1812, and the government would like us to remember that.

Here's something you might not find in the official story: not everyone was so keen to fight. My friend Jonathon Hodge, a librarian in Toronto, did some research on the war resisters of 1812: "The War of 1812 – like all wars – was not all glory and righteousness. Not even mostly glory and righteousness."

In the Discover Canada citizenship guide, I read that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a nation-building event. Stephen Harper says the War of 1812 was a "seminal event in the making of our great country". I'd argue that other milestones in a country's development actually shape the character of the people more than the large numbers of people killed in far-off lands. In comments on his post, Jonathon suggests that the Canada we now know was shaped by more recent struggles of the labour movement, by public health care, by bilingualism and multiculturalism.

Perhaps a seminal event in the making of our great country was declaring ourselves, however briefly, a nation of peace and a refuge from militarism.

Update: Elizabeth May: The War of 1812 and the Surrender of 2012.

14 comments:

M@ said...

I don't remember whether I've told you about this before, but it's on topic so I'll mention it. I volunteered and did a co-op term for some years at Battlefield House, the Stoney Creek historic site that is the site of a major battle in the War of 1812. (Really, it's the major battle site -- its historic impact is hard to overstate. When they talk about battles that shaped a country, this is a major one, and not because of its size or its ferocity, but because there were major political decisions made based on its outcome. That's the case with Stoney Creek. I wonder if people realise that that is really how battles shape a country?)

So anyhow, I worked as a historical interpreter in many different parts of the house, usually as a farm hand but sometimes as a British redcoat. And I remember in the military side of things, the militia were mentioned quite often.

It was common knowledge that the militia weren't consistent participants in the fighting. They would show up, usually with the single weapon that the family owned for the farm, and they would do maybe a few hours' training. They were next to useless militarily (armies at that time absolutely depended on working together in mass movements). And when the fighting left their immediate area, or got too intense, or if work just needed to be done at home, they just... walked away. Or they didn't show up at all.

It wasn't talked about as a knock on the militia, just the way things were. I don't think the historical interpreters involved really thought of it in political terms.

But what it speaks to is that our national myth about 1812 being a Canadian war is false. It was the two colonial powers, waging war for their own purposes, and the only Canadians involved were tangential to the situation at best.

And if we look at it from the point of view of the political decisions again -- well, what if the British had lost a few more battles? They would have pulled up stakes and gone home. So the big official story kind of hinges on foreign soldiers coming to Canada, winning some battles, and mostly going home. Let's put that on some quarters, eh?

laura k said...

Thanks for this, M@ - terrific.

When they talk about battles that shaped a country, this is a major one, and not because of its size or its ferocity, but because there were major political decisions made based on its outcome. That's the case with Stoney Creek. I wonder if people realise that that is really how battles shape a country?

It doesn't appear that way. Case in point, Vimy Ridge.

But what it speaks to is that our national myth about 1812 being a Canadian war is false. It was the two colonial powers, waging war for their own purposes, and the only Canadians involved were tangential to the situation at best.

This is really important, I think. On some level, it's a reflection of what happens in every war. The soldiers are proxies for the governments that are waging war for their own purposes. And usually a layer or two of meaning (propaganda) is added to justify the sacrifice to the participants.

laura k said...

And I did know you did some work at that historical site, but didn't know any details. You might remember that Allan and I once had a Stoney Creek day, went to Devil's Punchbowl and such, but the museum or interpretative centre wasn't open at the time. I do plan to go back. Also to eat ice cream at that place again. :)

M@ said...

I wonder if people realise that that is really how battles shape a country?

It doesn't appear that way. Case in point, Vimy Ridge.


I was worried that this statement would be taken as pointed at the people hereabouts. I did mean it pointed at people in general, who are, on average, maybe a little less engaged with such questions.

But it's worth asking whoever starts blathering about Vimy Ridge -- exactly what changed? What were the results, directly or indirectly, from that battle? I have my own thoughts on that but I'm definitely straying from the topic a little too far.

I do remember your trip to the Devil's Punch Bowl, of course! As well as your lunch (or was it just ice cream?) at the Stoney Creek Dairy. Your little M@ Reality Tour. I think it would definitely be worth a visit to the museum if you possibly can.

Oh, and about how soldiers are used as proxies -- Canada is now claiming that soldiers from another country, used as proxies to fight for one imperial power against another, actually had something to do with us, the citizens two hundred years hence of a country that wouldn't even exist in any real form until fifty years after the war itself... it's such a convoluted path backwards that it doesn't even make sense if you try to state it out loud. It's just nonsense. We aren't even talking about soldiers as proxies for imperialistic aims, we're talking about imperialistic aims as proxies for some national myths.

Utter nonsense. The history is fascinating, and very important for Canadians to be aware of, but the idea of getting some national pride from it is hopelessly stupid.

laura k said...

It was clear you meant that more generally.

Canada is now claiming that soldiers from another country, used as proxies to fight for one imperial power against another, actually had something to do with us, the citizens two hundred years hence of a country that wouldn't even exist in any real form until fifty years after the war itself... it's such a convoluted path backwards that it doesn't even make sense if you try to state it out loud. It's just nonsense. We aren't even talking about soldiers as proxies for imperialistic aims, we're talking about imperialistic aims as proxies for some national myths.

Right! And that's how official versions of a history that never existed are created.

And you are hereby invited to go on at length if you so choose.

M@ said...

On at length... you're really opening up a can of long-winded worms... but here's what I think.

Vimy Ridge was just another battle for everyone else. It was probably a big thing at the time, the way "we captured the Al Qaeda number two man!" thing was big in the last ten years, every time it happened. There were plenty of newspaper headlines, good and bad, in WWI. Vimy Ridge was one of them.

But the Canadians were widely recognized as the best fighting force in the British army. They were exceptionally capable of breaking through the German lines, to the point where every movement of Canadian troops was shrouded in secrecy, because if the Germans found out the Canadians were moving somewhere, they would know that an attack was coming there.

So Vimy Ridge was a big battle, but nowhere near the size of the battles that had happened to date (the Somme, Verdun, pretty much everything in the vicinity of Ypres). And nothing new -- yes, the Canadians beat the Germans back, but that's what they were supposed to do. Good job, shall we move on to Loos or somewhere?

The thing is, Canada did improve its international standing in WWI. We went from some weird colonials to an actual country, from some lumberjacks in the snow to a country that contributed a great deal to a war that was considered pretty much the most important thing that had ever happened. (It might have been, but only for reasons that wouldn't be immediately apparent.)

You put some money in the pot, you get to play cards; that's what international politics is like. The more chips you buy, the more you get to play. In WWI, Canada bought in pretty heavily. Our contribution to that war, in a military sense at least, was far more important than in WWII (where we were, in the end, a usefully safe port, a huge pilot training school, and a great source of wood, steel, and canned meat).

Vimy Ridge may have been symbolic of Canada's contribution, and that's why it's been grabbed lately as a point of national pride. I doubt, however, it is really that meaningful, and I strongly doubt the rest of the world knows or cares about it at all. But, like the new love for the War of 1812, it's been subsumed into the vast political need to make people feel good about themselves.

Ugh. Now I'm just depressing myself. And the thing is, from a military standpoint, I admire and respect the Canadian army and the way it worked in WWI (except for its shameful execution of deserters, of course). I just can't really get excited about it, knowing that the end of WWI was the only really good thing about it, and the people in charge even screwed that up, in the end.

Lorraine said...

Brad Hicks: "I think that every American who volunteers, and then fights to protect their country, is a hero. But with a handful of possible exceptions, like the first wave of troops into Afghanistan at the end of 2001, I don't think that applies to any American since 1945."

laura k said...

Thanks for accepting the invite, M@. :)

But, like the new love for the War of 1812, it's been subsumed into the vast political need to make people feel good about themselves.

Yes. And some of us are through with allowing war to make us feel good. Even the supposedly good war, WWII. So many many many people killed who had no way of changing their government's policies or affecting anything but kill or be killed.

I just can't really get excited about it, knowing that the end of WWI was the only really good thing about it, and the people in charge even screwed that up, in the end.

Just repeating for emphasis.

M@ said...

some of us are through with allowing war to make us feel good.

More and more, I hope. I know I'm among them more than I've ever been.

Ferdzy said...

Funny you should post this. I just came back from Pelham Half-Yearly Meeting, where they were talking about a project they've been working on this year: 3 plaques commemorating the war resisters of 1812.

I'll be going down to Port Colborne on Sunday for the dedication of a plaque to the Quaker war resisters. There will be two other plaques, for the Mennonites and Brethren-in-Christ.

I didn't know that in 1793 the government of Upper Canada had recognized the right of Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren in Christ to be conscientious objectors. (Info from Mennonite plaque and it was mentioned at the meeting as well.)

laura k said...

Ferdzy, these folks are in Port Colborne! Perhaps you could do some kind of tie-in?

laura k said...

I am investigating the possibilities...

Ferdzy said...

Laura, I think things are pretty planned but perhaps it could be mentioned.

I'm just going to support my Dad, really, who has been part of the group getting this arranged. And he's in the hospital with pneumonia at the moment - I'm not sure he's going to be there himself. (In fact pretty sure not.) Still, you never know...

laura k said...

Ferdzy, I understand. I should have said maybe I can get a tie-in, not you! I'm going to ask a few Toronto Quakers what they think. It's worth a try.

Best wishes for your dad, I hope he makes a speedy and thorough recovery.