Navy turns to War of 1812 for help

April 14, 2012

Faced with little public understanding of its modern mission, the U.S. Navy is reaching back 200 years to the War of 1812 in the hopes of bolstering its standing with the American people.

This week it launches an ambitious, three-year commemoration to mark the bicentennial of the often overlooked war. Beginning Tuesday in New Orleans, and continuing through the summer in New York, Norfolk, Baltimore and Boston, tall ships and warships from around the world will parade through American ports.

But unlike previous commemorations, the Navy wants to reap lasting benefits from the War of 1812 and plans to immerse the public in a flood of information and events, including educational outreach, Web sites, social media, online games, books and museum displays.

Polling for the Navy by Gallup has shown that less than 9 percent of Americans understand its mission. Equally worrisome, the public ranks the Navy ahead of only the Coast Guard in its importance to national defense, and well behind the Army, Marines and Air Force.

The results have raised alarms within the Navy at a time when the military services face daunting budget cuts.


“United States Frigate Constitution Chased By British Fleet” was painted by J. Font Mahan in 1841 with oil on copper, as is part of the best of 1812 collection. The Navy is using the bicentennial of the war to reinforce the public’s understanding of their division’s mission. (Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

Although it may seem odd to turn to the Age of Sail to prove the Navy’s modern relevance, senior Navy officials argue that a war fought with a few wooden frigates under the flag of “Free Trade and Sailors Rights” directly relates to the mission of the Navy today, including keeping choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz open against threats from Iran and battling piracy off Somalia’s coast.

“We’re doing about the exact same things today that we were doing 200 years ago — protecting freedom of the seas,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said after a recent bicentennial reception in Washington.

The Navy has long claimed the War of 1812 as its coming of age and one of its most glorious episodes, from the USS Constitution’s smashing single-ship victories to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s defeat of a British fleet on Lake Erie.

By war’s end, the fledgling Navy was left with a host of heroes and some of its most enduring slogans, among them “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” Most importantly, perhaps, a grateful Congress authorized a steady stream of funding to build a permanent and powerful fleet.

This is a lesson the Navy would like to see emulated.

The Navy is battling what Mabus called the “misperception” that it has not been deeply involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Army and the Marine Corps have borne the brunt of the fighting.

Only 11 percent of respondents in 2011 named the Navy as the military service most important for national defense, compared with 25 percent for the Army, 24 percent for the Marines and 17 percent for the Air Force. In 2002, before the start of the Iraq war, the Navy stood at 17 percent, roughly equal to the Army and Marines.

The Marine Corps, though a component of the Navy, is a separate branch of the military. Although the Navy basked in the glory of the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year, the role of its ships and sailors in the region is often overlooked, Mabus said.

“The poll data showed the American people don’t understand why we need a navy,” said Michael J. Crawford, senior historian for the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The leadership of the Navy has decided this is an opportunity not to be missed to explain to American people what the Navy is.”

But a recent report from the naval inspector general questioned the strategy, noting that the Navy’s history command is hampered by limited resources, and that many of its historic paintings, documents and artifacts are “in jeopardy” because storage facilities lack adequate temperature and humidity controls.

“Although the War of 1812 Commemoration is advertised to be the . . . ‘moon shot’ that propels the image of the Navy and public perception out of its historic low . . . many staff historians feel senior [history command] leadership is focused on comemorations to the exclusion of other critical mission areas,” the report said.

Gallup will survey six cities for the Navy before and after bicentennial events are held this year, measuring whether the effort improves public understanding of the service. That, the Navy hopes, will translate into public and congressional support for its budget.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, who has enthusiastically embraced the bicentennial, said in an interview that he expects it will assist with the “dynamics of what’s going on with the budget.”

The Navy has spent $12 million over five years preparing for the bicentennial. Officials did not estimate how much the Navy will spend during the celebration, but said it will “minimize costs” because much of the commemoration has been built atop existing events, including annual “Fleet Week” visits to various cities, Blue Angel shows and training exercises.

“We don’t say, ‘200th commemoration at all costs’,” Greenert said.

The bicentennial will serve as an experiment in how the Navy tells its story. “We don’t want to just show up and have a party and everyone goes away and forgets why the Navy was there,” Crawford said.

The Navy has filled a vacuum to bring a national sweep to what otherwise would be a series of local and regional events.

“The Navy has taken this under its wing,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), whose legislation to create a national War of 1812 bicentennial commission was blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.).

Unlike in Canada, where the War of 1812 is part of the national psyche, the war reasserting American independence from Great Britain is little appreciated in the United States.

The causes — which include British restrictions on American sea trade, its impressment of American sailors and the beginnings of America’s westward expansion — are difficult to summarize. The winner — the United States, Great Britain and Canada all claim some measure of victory — remains in dispute. Even its name — the War of 1812 lasted nearly three years — adds to the confusion.

The bicentennial effort has further suffered because of the weak economy, tight government budgets and competition with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which always gets top billing.

Beyond the tall ships and Blue Angel shows, the Navy is helping host events in more than a dozen cities this year, including Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco.

The Navy has prepared information kiosks, displays and banners to be exhibited at hundreds of museums across the country. The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis will hold an international academic conference on the war in 2013. The Navy history office has produced an official commemorative book, “The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy,” published in March by National Geographic.

Under the slogan “Keeping the Sea Free for More Than 200 Years,” the Navy is waging its campaign on its official bicentennial Web site, Facebook page and Twitter account.

On the Web site, a video narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss juxtaposes images of aircraft carriers, jets and SEALs with scenes of frigates battling with cannons. “The War of 1812 gave us much more than the national anthem,” Dreyfuss intones. “It unleashed an American navy — a navy that to this day has proved essential to our nation’s survival and prosperity.”

The USS Constitution Museum in Boston, with Navy funding, has developed an interactive “Sailor’s Life for Me” Web site for educators and children, which includes a K-12 curriculum for teaching about the war, as well as online games allowing children to experience virtual life at sea by emptying chamber pots off the side of a ship.

“We’re using every means at our disposal,” Crawford said.

One of the marquee events will be in Maryland’s Patuxent River, where Navy archaeologists working with the state plan to excavate a 75-foot long vessel believed to be Scorpion, the flagship of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla, scuttled in a futile attempt to protect Washington from British capture.

Over the next three years, the Navy will return for major celebrations marking the battles on the Great Lakes in 2013, the bombardment of Fort McHenry and the writing of the Star Spangled Banner at Baltimore in 2014, and the Battle of New Orleans in 2015.

The splashy bicentennial effort has spawned grumbling from the U.S. Army about the Navy’s “overblown” claims about its role in the war.

Over the course of the conflict, the Navy would suffer many defeats and the Army would deliver critical victories. But in general, the war is one the Army would prefer to forget, particularly its multiple failed invasions of Canada.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History is preparing commemorative brochures, and local commands may participate in some events, but there is no central Army effort.

“We weren’t given the mission or money to do it this time,” said Glenn Williams, senior historian at the Army’s commemoration office, who noted that the Army has been busy “fighting two wars.”

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