Monday, August 25, 2014

America's Favorite Wars

I was having a beer with several Canadians this weekend, and the topic of 1812 came up (before the wonderful British Embassy tweet).  And I asserted that the War of 1812 is not among the top ten favorite American wars.  Of course, that is an exaggeration--but top five?  No.  Let's check.

And by favorite, I refer to a combo of how each war fits into American mythology, American pop culture (movies, books, music, whatever), and what I remember of American history classes from back in the day (which slights the recent wars as teachers would run out of time).  Favorite does not entirely mean loved or liked, as how can we really like war.  Indeed, some unpopular wars are still favorites in terms of popular discussion/imagination.
  1. World War II.  Really?  Yes.  Because it is the last big war the US so unambiguously won.  Many, many classic war movies and books from this war, and the boomers are always fond of lauding their parents as the Greatest Generation since that makes them almost great, too.  Ok, that is unfair.  
  2. U.S. Civil War.  Holy re-enacting!  More re-enacting than WWII but less in the way of movies.  Plus the whole divided outlook on the war itself, with some folks still denying that slavery was at the heart of it.  
  3. The Revolutionary War.  Yes, the founding war is third.  Why?  When was the last time you saw a movie or tv show about the American Revolution?  "Turn"?  Exactly.  The political stuff certainly continues to dominate America's sense of itself, but the war?  More Americans can name more battles from WWII and the Civil War than from the American Revolution.  I wonder how many would name Saratoga as a key turning point?  Yorktown as the last big battle?  The last notable movie about this war starred Mel Gibson as the good guy.... so yeah.
  4. Vietnam. Plays a huge role in Americans' imagination of war.  Any new conflict is immediately considered the next Vietnam.  The boomers obviously had much obsession with this war, and they still shape much of American attitudes about stuff.  Heaps of movies and books.
  5. Gulf War (1991).  The US loves a victory and this is the most recent mostly unambiguous victory.  Plus George Clooney was in a movie about it. 
  6. Korea.  M*A*S*H.  
  7. Grenada.  Due to that Clint Eastwood movie. World War I.  It is hip again with the one hundred anniversary, but so very distant in time and entirely eclipsed by the war that this war to end all wars did not prevent.  I think we have more music from that war than movies/books.  Again, this is my take on the American stance on these things.  Obviously, Europeans have stronger memories about WWI, having lost a huge hunk of a generation.
  8. The various wars against the Native Americans.  Sure, Westerns are no longer popular, but the conflicts in the Old West play a big role in the American history books.  It would be interesting to see if Americans could list more Native American war leaders than generals of the opposing sides in various wars.  I would guess that only the US Civil War would be an even match.
  9. Wars of Texas Independence/US Irredentism. Thanks to John Wayne and the Alamo.  
  10. War of 1812.  I am pretty sure that Americans would have a hard time guessing what was the big battle the US won (after the war was over) or what the war was about.  Sure, we got the National Anthem from this war, but how many people can sing it?  It is also diminished by the fact that this war was a sideshow for the big wars in Europe with that Napoleon dude.
The funny thing is that the Conservative government of Canada has been playing up the War of 1812 as a key point in Canada's founding mythology even as it preceded the founding of Quebec.  I guess it is like the "French and Indian War" that is a key part of American history books, mostly due to the rise of George Washington and setting the conditions for the Revolution.

Anyhow, I am not an historian nor have I read surveys on how Americans view the wars.  Just my impressions from what I saw in my various schools and how the wars play in American culture.  I think most Americans would agree that the War of 1812 is near the bottom of the list of American wars.  I guess getting one's capital burned can lead to some selective amnesia.  

1 comment:

Chip said...

War of 1812 is the founding war in the sense that the Maritime colonies and Lower and Upper Canada realized they needed to work together to fend off potential (and at the time actual) US aggression.

Also, the Brits were winning the war, had occupied much of the state of Maine -- with the inhabitants not minding too much as the Brits let them carry on their commerce (war wasn't too popular in Northeast, it was those aggressive militaristic yahoos in the south and mountains who wanted this war, some things never change...).

Events in Europe became more pressing for the Brits so even though they had the advantage, they gave occupied Maine back to the US and ended the war. Amazing how different the mythologies we learned in school are from events but there's got to be something for college profs to deconstruct!