In my column for the National Post, I discuss the consequences of the War of 1812:
If Canadians know any history at all, they know the story of the war of 1812. (Or at least the part about the British burning the White House.) Americans usually focus their remembrance on bigger, bloodier conflicts. Yet in this bicentennial year, one American historian is urging his countrymen to appreciate that their nationhood was forged in two centuries of war up and down the bloody warpath between Albany and Montreal.
Eliot Cohen is one of America’s leading writers on military affairs. His 2002 book Supreme Command (a study of civilian leadership in wartime) featured on president Bush’s reading list that year. I traveled to Iraq with him in 2005 and had the pleasure of introducing him at a recent book event at the Canadian embassy in Washington.
Cohen’s new book, Conquered Into Liberty, offers an arresting idea. It was during their long struggle against the French and Indians that the New England colonies developed a distinctive American idea of how war should be fought.
In Europe, war had been regarded as more or less the normal state of things: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” European societies developed monarchies, bureaucracies and standing armies to fight wars, and regimes of treaties and rules to regulate wars.
The New Englanders rejected this idea of managing an unending conflict. Colonial wars were too atrocious to manage: In the vast wilderness, civilians were always the target of attack, because they were often the only target available to attack. Nor were the New Englanders keen to replicate the war-fighting institutions they had left Europe in large part to escape.
Instead, New Englanders began to imagine a different kind of future: a future of absolute security obtained by the total elimination of their enemy. In Europe, such a vision would have seemed a preposterous fantasy. France could not hope to subjugate Spain; England could never possibly conquer France.