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Why Commemorate the War of 1812 Bicentennial?

"The deeds of our Navy form a part of history over which
any American can be pardoned for lingering."
President Theodore Roosevelt

The Naval War of 1812

From 2012 to 2015, the United States Navy and its partners will commemorate the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of our National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. It is remarkable that 200 years ago, the first declared war in our nation’s history was fought against the nation (now two nations) which have become our closest allies. Many things change in 200 years, but what doesn’t change is the importance of sea power in the affairs of maritime nations.

Since its birth in 1776, the United States has always been a maritime nation, which means that unobstructed access to and free use of the world’s oceans are essential to our national welfare and prosperity. That’s what the United States went to war in 1812 to defend, and that is what the United States Navy has been protecting ever since.

Why is keeping the seas free so important? Here are a few facts about the world:

  • 70% of the world is covered by the oceans
  • 80% of the world’s people live near the oceans
  • 90% of all international trade travels on the oceans
  • 95% of all global communications are transported under the oceans

That’s the world America lives in today. Looking at those numbers, one begins to understand the immense importance of ensuring the freedom of the oceans with capable and effective sea services. The piracy off the Horn of Africa that has emerged in the first decades of the 21st century reminds us of the 18th century Barbary Pirates and the threat they posed to our nation in its early years. In response to that threat, the United States commissioned six frigates, built up and down the Atlantic coast from New Hampshire to Virginia. Since America’s Navy began with those first six frigates, American sea power has been essential to countering threats, winning wars and furthering the interests of peace and prosperity worldwide.

Our Sea Services team and its capabilities are absolutely critical to our Nation’s security. We learned that lesson first and well during the War of 1812, and that tuition is worth reviewing again as we commemorate that war’s bicentennial over the next several years.

To say a lot has changed in the last 200 years is an obvious understatement. For example:

  • The two combatant nations in the War of 1812 have become three nations enjoying the closest possible friendly relationships: The United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
  • In 1812 America’s Navy operated wooden ships; now it operates steel ships and is working on constructing ships of futuristic synthetic materials.
  • The sails powered by wind in 1812 have given way consecutively to steam (from coal and then oil), to gas turbines, to energy from the atom, and in the future to green energy sources.
  • In 1812, the Navy’s situational awareness was limited to the horizon of visibility from the top of the tallest mast on a ship; today, America’s Navy enjoys instantaneous communications to any point on the globe, to the bottom of the ocean, and to and from outer space.
  • The smoothbore cannons of 1812 have metamorphosed into modern naval guns, aircraft, missiles, and torpedoes, and America’s Navy is on course to a force armed with lasers and railguns, technologies unimaginable to the sailors who fought in the War of 1812.

But today one of those first six frigates that 200 years ago fought in the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Constitution, is still a commissioned ship in the United States Navy. She is a tangible link to those critical events in our nation’s history, and anchors one end of the arcs of technological change just described. As such, she invites one’s attention to the intangible lessons of the War of 1812 that have shaped, and must continue to shape, the nation’s sea services today and in the future. The traditions, customs, and norms of the United States Navy in the 21st Century were laid down in the War of 1812. The outstanding Navy commanders of the War of 1812, such as Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas Macdonough, Charles Morris, and others, set benchmarks for leadership, seamanship, and innovation that shape and inform the officer corps of America’s Navy today. The performance of America’s Sailors and Marines in that war, fighting always against great odds and in great peril, set the standards proudly met by our ships’ crews over the last 200 years and today.

Ultimately, the commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 is a salute to all of our Sailors and Marines who fought so gallantly against great odds in that conflict, in all of our nation’s conflicts between then and now, and those who are today defending freedom around the world – from the mountains of Afghanistan to the coasts of Africa to the Straits of Hormuz – and standing ready to provide compassionate humanitarian aid from Haiti to Japan to wherever catastrophe strikes. The Navy and Marine Corps and Coast Guard are what they are because of the quality of the people that served over the last 200 years, and the tens of thousands of Sailors and Marines now making sacrifices every day, something that America can be very grateful has not changed over the past 200 years.

If America remembers the lessons of the naval war of 1812, lessons paid for with the lives of Sailors and Marines, then America can be confident that the nation will always answer Francis Scott Key’s question in the affirmative: 

Oh, say does that that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

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