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.
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.