I was pleasantly surprised that the US navy is dedicating this year's Fleet Week in New York to remembrance of the War of 1812. It is a murky war, rarely mentioned in either the US or the UK, and often confused in both places with the War of Independence, or, in Britain, with the war against Napoleon. It is a war, however, that has some important lessons for today.
I am not going to go into detail on the war as there as some very good books which do a much better job than I could, e.g., Budiansky's Perilous Fight, Toll's Six Frigates, and, of course, young Teddy Roosevelt's The Naval War of 1812, which also has a good account of the Battle of New Orleans. Suffice it to say that it was an incredibly brutal war, including very vile treatment of prisoners by both sides.
The war was brought about by British arrogance and American stupidity. The British were not reconciled to an independent United States, and could not take the place and its bombastic pronouncements about liberty seriously. They basically ignored the USA's assertion of being a sovereign state, and proceeded to treat American ships and seaman as some sort of Brits gone rogue. The USA, for its part, could not understand that the British were in what they saw as a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte. We did not respect that. We reckoned we could trade and make deals with France, such as the spectacular Louisiana Purchase which filled Napoleon's coffers and served his aim of helping create a huge potential rival to Britain, without raising British concerns or provoking them into action.
Lesson number one: if you go bear hunting, go with the intention to kill the bear. The United States was trying to assert itself on the cheap. Loud words and public breast beating did not impress the British. They controlled the oceans and were not going to allow the brash Americans to use those oceans to aid France with our trade. We provoked the bear, and found ourselves, thanks to the Democrats of the day, with a paltry Navy and an almost non-existent Army when the bear came roaring into camp.
Lesson number two: Your interests and your power to protect them should be roughly in line. Our interest was free and open trade, eliminating European influence in the Americas, and preventing a recolonization of the United States. We did not have the ability to do any of those.
Lesson number three: Do not underestimate your opponent. Both sides underestimated the ability of the other to fight. Americans thought the British were too preoccupied with France to do much on this side of the Atlantic; the British, for their part, thought they could deliver a couple of quick knockout blows, and the Yanks would be down for the count. Wrong and wrong.
The British, despite the war in Europe managed to put together a more than credible military and naval force against the distant United States. The Americans, in turn, showed a talent that would serve us well in future wars by getting our act together at the last minute and putting on a damn good defense of the country. The US army, however, remained plainly horrendous throughout the war with its corrupt and politicized officer corps, and its half-baked, ill-planned and even worse executed invasion of Canada. The US also set the precedent of burning York--today's Toronto--which led to the British burning of the nascent US capital which the army failed to defend. The army partially redeemed itself in the Battle of New Orleans, under the otherwise reprehensible Andrew Jackson (Note: Why is he on our $20 bill?)
The US navy, however, proved completely different, and did an amazing job of fighting off the much larger British navy, wreaking havoc on it, carrying the war into British waters, and even eliciting a warning from the Admiralty to the Royal Navy to avoid one-on-one combat with US ships. The US navy also fought a superb campaign on the Great Lakes which resulted in the British fleet withdrawing from those waters.
The Obama administration's disregard for US military power, in particular, the continued shrinking of the US navy will have dire consequences for us. Let's hope that at least some lessons from that long ago and hideous war are remembered.
Update: Lesson number four: Do not let the US and UK go to war against each other. Americans and Britons are very good at war; they should not waste that talent against each other.