September 23, 2011

Revisiting the War of 1812

Were it not for Johnny Horton's classic ditty, "The Battle of New Orleans" ("We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin. There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago" — a No. 1 hit in 1959), it seems Plattsburgh could easily lay claim to the title of most famous American city of the War of 1812.

Unlike Washington, D.C., and its blackened White House, and Detroit, which fell to the British colonials in near comic (and bloodless) fashion, Plattsburgh was, as readers well know, the scene of what historians say was the most important victory for the American side in the war.

Appropriately, we note, celebrations are planned down your way for the bicentennial of the last and final time — excepting the Fenians — there were cross-border military hostilities.

On this side of the border, where the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has taken a particular shine to military tradition, the bicentennial will be getting, dare we say, the royal treatment. We say this with tongue in cheek because just a few weeks ago the prime minister announced Canada's navy and air force would have their traditional titles restored.

Back in 1968, under the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, Canada's armed forces were unified ("eunuchfication" as one comedian of the day quipped) and all personnel compelled to wear olive-green uniforms. Further, the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force were stripped of their royal titles and became common Commands under the single force.

This move, though rational from the perspective of the hip technocrats who ran the government in those days, was immensely unpopular with the troops, veterans and anyone who had a soft spot for the monarchy.

Harper, who recently ordered portraits of the queen hung in all Canada's embassy reception areas — sparking a spat over the displacement at Foreign Affairs HQ in Ottawa of some cherished Quebec works of art — is clearly excited about the upcoming celebrations of this last burst of British military glory on Canadian soil.

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