Sunday, September 12, 2004

A Tale of Two 9/11s


On September 11, 1814, Thomas MacDonough looked out across Lake Champlaign to see the fruits of his work over the summer. Upon the lake were near twenty ships, ranging in size from small gun boat, no more than a large row boat with a small cannon inside, to small sloops and "frigates" with up to twenty guns. Like his colleague Oliver Hazard Perry a year earlier on the Great Lakes, MacDonough had built an armada from scratch in a matter of months. This wasn't for an offensive mission though, MacDonough knew the British were planning to invade from Canada down the Richelieu River-Lake Champlain-Hudson corridor and that his naval and land forces were all that would prevent the British from cutting New England off from the rest of the country. This was part of a three pronged British strategy to end the war and perhaps win back territory from the American Revolution. The other two parts were the capturing of New Orleans, thus cutting off the western territories of the United States and the pacification of the interior by capturing Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The latter part of the operation succeeded in the embarrasing loss of the capital but was repulsed by the ability of Fort McHenry to withstand the British onslaught. Unable to get into Baltimore the British had to turn away. In a remarkable feat for 19th century warfare the British carried off the invasion from the North and the Chesapeake campaign almost simultaneously, both occurring in the second weeks of September 2004.

These three separate, but coordinated, campaigns posed a very real danger, especially since the force going towards New Orleans was feared and rumored to be massive and full of regulars from the Napoleonic Wars. But the Northern invasion threatened to push New England into secession in order to remain independent of British rule. It had to be stopped. On the day of September 11, MacDonough's men engaged the British flotilla on Lake Champlaign while a brisk, but fierce battle was fought on the hills of Plattsburgh overlooking the Lake. The British ships were almost all sunk in the engagement and therefore the whole expedition had to turn around, for without supplies the land force of Canadian militiamen and British regulars, despite how well they fought, would not survive in upstate New York unprovisioned. The nation waited nervously until the news of the great victory spread. Parades and celebrations abounded. For once New Englanders had felt threatened in the war and basked in the defeat of an invading force designed to harm them. The only thing remaining, aside from Indian upstarts on the frontier who were under the misguided impression that the British were fighting for them, was the invading force in the South. This seemed remote from most Americans, many of whom lived East of the Appalachians, unlike the invasions down Lake Champlain and up the Chesapeake. And anyway the great Indian fighter Andrew Jackson was preparing for the British. The even more spetacular victory Jackson achieved overshadowed Plattsburgh, which was slowly forgotten and totally ignored when it was decided 100 years later that the War of 1812 was a failure and emblematic of the problems created by all Madisonian policies.

On September 11, 2001, American was invaded again. This time it was not down the Champlain route and Thomas MacDonough, as well as his America, was not there to prevent the invaders from achieving their goal. The enemy this time was not animated by mere orders from Whitehall to put together an invasion with only a detached willingness to "do one's duty." This new enemy had a ideological point to make against America as much as anything else. America, after the deaths of its founders, has not been led by particularly intellectual men who can understand this type of "nuanced" enemy. Not fighting particularly because they want territory, wealth, or subjects, they fight to prove to their God their worthiness in his war against those who do not recognize his supreme and singular divinity. We have fought against Muslim barbarians before, but those men were interested only in slaves and tribute, not killing themselves in an effort to destroy our symbols, buildings, and national character. But two hundred years has changed the men who once tried to emulate the Western world into men who despise it. They despise that it is secular, that it is selfish (capitalism), that it is free (from God's prescripts).

Will we recognize the seriousness of the conflict and deal with the extremely dangerous reality we find ourselves in, like our leaders and people did in 1814? Or will we continue to be naive and gullable, thinking the old tools created to deal with old threats will work with the completely irrational and singularly focused Islamists who wish to destroy all vestiges of civilization? This war can be won, just as the War of 1812 was won (despite assertions that the conflict was at best a draw). But it will take leadership that recognizes the threat, is prepared to deal with the threat all alone if need be and will not use the threats and dangers of war to take away or "temporarily suspend" the rights of American citizens or to deal improperly with our vanquished foes.

President Madison was a great commander-in-cheif because he recognized these things and did not exacerbate problems in the country by abusing the powers of the government. He ran huge deficits, as a war for survival dictates and only treasonous quacks in New England complained, but Madison said nothing of them nor did he attempt to silence their continual protests. British prisoners were treated exceedinly well, especially when one considers the total misery and filth Americans were forced to endure in British prison ships. Attempts to conquer Canada may have failed, but America's ability to hold her own against the greatest naval and land power on Earth showed that the country was already gaining immense ground on the Old World, on Old Europe. American frigates and privateers gained victories and prizes throughout the whole war and did serious damage to the British mercantile economy. The war was fought for the principle of free trade and the ability to sail the seas as a neutral country unmolested by belligerants. But those goals are no less serious than today's goals. As Madison and other leaders realized, there is no point in having a country if it cannot protect the rights of its citizens or have its sovereignty respected. And since all the major campaigns occurred in North America the war was just as much about the survival of the country as our war today. The weapons and tactics have changed, but the principles have not. If we are to win any conflict for survival we must look at reality and deal with it accordingly or we shall surely perish, and it will be our own fault. Should that day ever arise then brave will be the man to say that that United States was the same country that produced George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

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