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The Navy Relives the War of 1812

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Concerned about its image, the Navy has determined that the War of 1812 is just the thing it needs:

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…

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.

Three quick thoughts and one longer thought:

  1. I’m all for celebrating the need to rid the seas of the perfidious Canadians.
  2. I kinda wish I still lived in Baltimore, and I’m curious whether they’ll do some kind of commemoration of the Battle of Bladensburg in DC.
  3. The Navy has created a groovy twitter feed for specifically this project, which should get more interesting as the important anniversaries roll around.

The larger issue is the disjuncture between the modern USN and the USN of 1812. The technological aspect isn’t the biggest hurdle; it’s not difficult to understand the basics of the progression of naval technology in the last 200 years. However, the invocations of Iran and Somalia are very interesting, because in strategic terms the modern USN occupies the same space as the Royal Navy of 1812. Indeed, the most plausible parallels are between the modern Iranian Navy and the USN of 1812, although at least the USN was competitive on a ship-to-ship level with the RN. 1812 can even boast an irregular force of small boats dedicated to anti-access missions, not to mention state-sponsored pirates and fanatical revolutionaries.

Selling the Navy is tough, in large part because it’s difficult to describe what amount to atmospheric benefits. It won’t surprise readers to learn that I believe the Navy is by far the most important service to U.S. security (conceived broadly or narrowly), but explaining the Navy’s contribution in compelling terms can be difficult. Incidentally, I’ll have some thoughts this weekend on Battleship, which was just a touch better than I expected, but not particularly good.

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  • Marek

    Coming soon: a re-release of Wooden Ships & Iron Men!

    • firefall

      I still have my copy knocking around somewhere

  • Joshua

    How in the hell does the Air Force rank higher than the Navy?

    • firefall

      Well they’re in the air, not the water …. and besides, fighters are sexy. Frigates are just slow, and dull.

      • cpinva

        true, but subs are the most dangerous penises in the world.

        • asdfsdf

          SSBNs are phenises containing many smaller penises of varying lengths, widths, densities, speeds, and orientations, and also containing several tons of seamen. They are by far the most phallic of any military technology.

    • SpiderBat

      When not at war, the Air Force tends to rank highest of all services. Americans are almost delusional about airpower as about ballistic missile defense.

  • Warren Terra

    I’m all for celebrating the need to rid the seas of the perfidious Canadians.

    Did we fight salt-water battles with the Canadians? My memory’s not fantastic, but I recall naval battles with Canadians on the lakes, and salt-water battles with the Brits.

    Oh, and I’ll repeat a recommendation I made in some earlier comment for Teddy Roosevelt’s The Naval War Of 1812.

    • Tcaalaw

      That’s my recollection too. The fresh water fleet was principally Canadian, while the salt water fleet was almost exclusively British.

    • ploeg

      No, in the War of 1812, we liked Canadians so much that we wanted to liberate them from perfidious Albion.

      And regarding the staffing of British ships, they weren’t too discriminating about who they took.

  • Tcaalaw

    The survey results are particularly funny to me because I remember a Slate or Salon article from years ago about how the USN had spent something like an order of magnitude or more on “media outreach” than all the other service branches combined over the previous two decades. (That’s why there are far more movies and TV shows about naval personnel than the other service branches.)

    • SpiderBat

      That’s why there are far more movies and TV shows about naval personnel than the other service branches.

      Maybe if you count space navies.

    • DocAmazing

      To say nothing off the near-divine reputation of the SEALs.

    • I always found it odd that Stargate involved the AF and their special forces. I know SEALs & Green Berets. Was it lobbying that got the Air Force associated with the movie, extended to the series?

      • Tcaalaw

        I don’t know, but I suspect the USAF had very little to do with the movie. I can’t find any references in on-line sources to USAF support for the film and there’s actually very little real life military hardware in the movie beyond firearms. All the discussion I can find about USAF involvement dates to the TV show and tends to emphasize that the USAF got more and more involved over the course of the show.

        My guess then is that the producers of the film used USAF characters simply because in real life the USAF is in charge of the “Space Command” branch for the US military and that the real life USAF then later glommed on to it when the TV show got into production. But I could be wrong.

        • Jaime

          there’s actually very little real life military hardware in the movie beyond firearms

          True – but my memory of the few eps I’ve seen conjures up our doughty USAF Stargate-hoppers wielding those whacky-looking French – Italian? – machine pistols(?) with a clear window on the magazine running along the top of the weapon.

          • Tcaalaw

            They’re Belgian. The FN P90. I’ve never heard why they used them on the show, but I would assume it’s because the guns have (a) a larger-sized magazine (50 rounds) and (b) an ejector system that drops spent shell casings downwards insteads of laterally. Those factors make them ideal prop weapons: it lets the actors spray large amounts of gunfire with less frequent breaks for reloading and the actors are less likely to get injured by flying shell casings. (Unlike, coincidentally, SG:U’s Lou Diamond Phillips’ experience on the set of Courage Under Fire where he got burns on his face from flying shell casings.)

            • Jaime

              Thanx for the info. Your points sound entirely valid viz the production co’s decision to use P90s, but I daresay the Rule of Cool trumps them all. Those weapons do look futuristic as fuck.

  • Kurzleg

    The Twins are a touch worse than I expected, and not particularly good.

    • What do you have against Schwarzanegger and DiVito?

  • L.M.

    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 Naval Reserve, of course, ranks 17th, between the Mississippi National Guard and the League of Women Voters.

  • David Kaib

    It won’t surprise readers to learn that I believe the Navy is by far the most important service to U.S. security (conceived broadly or narrowly),

    Have you spelled this out somewhere? I’d be curious to see.

    • L.M.

      I’d also be curious to know whether this argument can be iterated. Accepting the premise that the Navy is the most important service to U.S. security in isolation, is it possible that increasing the relative strength of the Navy (vis-a-vis the other services) still has a net-negative effect on U.S. security, because a stronger Navy empowers American leaders to use the other services to do very stupid things?

  • TT

    I guess the Navy’s dilemma is a lot like liberalism’s: it has the superior arguments with respect to claiming primacy in national security, but those arguments don’t fit on a bumper sticker. People in this country would only come to understand the Navy’s importance if it ceased to exist, or at least radically scaled back its mission profile.

    • Bill Murray

      can they scale back from “A Global Force for Good”?

      • “A Global Force For Nice”

        • Cody

          “A Global Force for the absence of Bad, but not necessarily good”

          Maybe that’s too long for a bumper sticker…

          • Hogan

            A Global Force for Could Be Worse

        • Jaime

          golf claps for everybody!

    • mpowell

      I think that people still wouldn’t understand. The difference would be, what, more volatility in the delivery of goods? It has less to do with what the mission is and more to do with what looks cool. Also, people probably value missions like Iraq not realizing that naval capabilities are at least as relevant to enable such an operation as army and AF capabilities.

  • Barry Freed

    So that explains why Ray Mabus is on Charlie Rose just now.

  • Some Guy

    The Coast Guard thing surprises me. I get why it would rank behind the Army, but the Coast Guard is pretty high on my list of “things with obvious, everyday use for the country.”

  • cpinva

    personally, i think the US gov’t should resurrect the practice of issuing “Letters of Marque“. it would give tea partiers with $20k bass boats something to do. most of them would be sunk, but one or two would score a canadian fishing vessel, and it would be free haddock for everyone!

    • CJColucci

      I’ve always wanted a letter of marque. I know someone at DOD, whom I’ll see in two weeks; maybe he can get me one, stamped “cancelled,” of course.

  • ajay

    Publicising the War of 1812 is great for the Navy, because it’s important to remember that the Air Force isn’t the only service whose cocksure incompetence has allowed an enemy to successfully attack Washington DC and destroy a major federal building.

    No, wait:

    Publicising the War of 1812 is important for the nation, because it’s important to remember that invading a country that poses no threat to you on the basis that the inhabitants will welcome you as liberators and then getting sucked into an endless, bloody guerrilla war as a result is a great old American tradition, not just something invented in the last ten years.

    No, wait:

    Publicising the War of 1812 is great for the navy because it emphasises that the US Navy can generally only be expected to win battles when it substantially outguns the enemy (Guerriere) and often not even then (Shannon). Therefore, buy us bigger warships plsthx.

    • Dave

      FTW, old bean, but nobody here’s listening…

  • Bexley

    To be fair on the first one it was the incompetence of the Army that allowed an enemy to attack Washington DC so the Navy should definitely play that up.

    • ajay

      Good point, bexley. Clearly this is a setup for the USCG’s 2013 recruitment campaign, new slogan “TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-THREE YEARS OF NOT LETTING ANY MAJOR US LANDMARKS GET DESTROYED THROUGH INEPTITUDE”. They’ll move up that ranking yet…

      • Bexley

        As a follow up the Navy should also publicise the Battle of Stoney Creek. A battle where both US Brigadiers were captured, each of them blundering into British troops thinking them American (to lose one General may be regarded as a misfortune etc). Followed by the US infantry and cavalry mistaking each other for the British and shooting at each other. Finally the Americans fell back despite outnumbering the British.

        The US Navy – more than two hundred years of mostly shooting at the other guys.

        • ajay

          The US Navy – more than two hundred years of mostly shooting at the other guys

          This reminds me of the Royal Navy officer who pointed out that the British Army has a noble tradition of heroic last stands. The Navy has no such tradition. It has a tradition of winning.

          • stevo67

            Pearl Harbor, USS Liberty, and the USS Maine seem to be the biggest blunders by the USN that I can recall. Oh, and Bull Halsey at Leyte Gulf. The US Army has a far more glorified past of incompetency: Custer’s Last Stand, Chancelorsville, Fredericksburg, Anzio, and any action with George McClellen.

            As Pearl Harbor goes, most war games show a complete loss of the Pacific fleet, including carriers, if the US actually had 24-48 hours advance warning of the strike. The fact that most of the ships sunk in a shallow harbor instead of deep ocean is something FDR was probably quietly grateful about.

            • Hogan

              Pearl Harbor, USS Liberty, and the USS Maine seem to be the biggest blunders by the USN that I can recall.

              USS Vincennes.

              • hickes01

                Savo Island. USS Indianapolis. Fire on the Kitty Hawk. Tailhook…

              • ajay

                And refusing to institute convoys on the east coast in 1942.

            • Walt

              Really? Why would it have led to the loss of the entire Pacific Fleet?

              • ajay

                Yeah, I’m curious about this as well. With 48 hours’ warning the fleet would presumably have been at sea, and the defences of Hawaii – radar, fighters and AA – would have been on alert. A more likely outcome would be that the Kido Butai launches its first wave, they arrive to find every dock in Pearl Harbor empty, and then they get jumped on by a very large number of US fighter aircraft which have been airborne for the last twenty minutes.

          • jefft452

            “The Navy has no such tradition. It has a tradition of winning.”
            Only since John Byng
            It turns out that shooting an Admiral from time to time really does encourage the others

    • greylocks

      The Navy had the primary responsibility for defending Pearl Harbor, so, uh…

  • arguingwithsignposts

    I am disappointed by the lack of Village People mentions in this thread.

  • rea

    The navy and marines fought quite well at Bladensburg–it was the “well-regulated” militia that ran away.

    • ajay

      Well, arguably by the time there was a large hostile force safely landed on US soil and marching on the capital, the navy had already cocked things up in a fairly critical way.

      • rea

        The US Navy could fight some creditable single-ship actions aggainst the British, but the notion of a fleet action to repulse the British fleet in the Chesapeake in 1814 is absurd. The British had 4 ships of the line and 20 frigates and sloops, according to the Wikipedia article on Bladensburg. The US navy at the time had no ships of the line and something like 8 frigates, blockaded in various ports.

        • ajay

          Well, quite.

        • ajay

          The argument that the USN had cocked things up substantially by 1814 is actually reinforced by pointing out that it had built a completely inadequate fleet and then got it split up and bottled up in ports all up and down the eastern seaboard.

          • rea

            No, that’s an argument that Congress had cocked things up, not the Navy. It’s not like Congress appropriated funds for a battle fleet, and the navy declined to spend them.

            • mpowell

              There’s a much better argument that the Navy f*cked up the build-up to WWII by not having enough destroyers and other escorts available. 1812 was just a failure of politics. It would have been too expensive for the US in 1812 to have an adequate navy for repulsing the british. The f*ckup was in neither the appropriations process or naval strategy.

              • Paul

                Depends – The Federalist program had it not been abandoned would have created a substantial navy one that could have caused real issues for a UK tied up with nappy.

                The USN did do a good job on the Lakes where it started from scratch just like the British, and contra the opinion noted above where it certainly a small pool of resources and men to work with.

              • jefft452

                “There’s a much better argument that the Navy f*cked up the build-up to WWII by not having enough destroyers and other escorts available.”

                Well, when it comes to tin cans, there is no such thing as “enough”
                But didn’t we have a crap load of four pipers?

                • rea

                  Carriers and battleships took a lot longer to build than destroyers and other escorts, so it made a certain amount of sense befoe the war to build carriers and battleships rather than destroyers–you could always slap a few destroyers together quickly if you needed them.

  • Pathman25

    Mr. Farley,
    What do you think would be the appropriate amount of money to spend on “defense” in general? You may have discussed this before and I didn’t see it. I would appreciate your opinion.

  • Richard Hershberger

    “I kinda wish I still lived in Baltimore…”

    They are planning a major commemoration this summer. Since the Battle of Baltimore was in 1814, this suggests either that the planners have poor arithmetic skills in planning the 200 years commemoration or their devotion to strict fidelity to history is limited.

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