The details of war don’t usually capture my attention, but lately I keep clicking down the rabbit hole of military history. Perhaps war always feels this imminent now, perhaps this feeling of foreboding is a trick of the media, emotional slight of hand. It’s hard to tell if the sense that the pendulum is again shifting slowly towards war is coming is real or an illusion. Whatever it is, war and the troop stomping details seem relevant, and eerily symmetrical.
If history teaches us anything it is that each new brutality of our culture is an even rougher blunter bloodier photocopy of the brutality that came before.
On December 30th, 1813, British soldiers marched into Buffalo, New York, and burned all but one of the hundred and fifty homes and buildings to the ground. They had given the town only a few hours warning and most people were able to save only some of their most basic winter provisions. One woman had died, killed by an indigenous ally to the British as she tried to save dresses from a fire.
The math of over two hundred years leaves the sense that perhaps huge chunks of America may have forgotten how painful war can be. We have fought wars elsewhere, recently and over the last century, but those were primarily wars where we sent our men away to die. Our town remained standing for them to come home to. The most recent war where we had utter destruction in America is the Civil War, and somehow, that impacted our brains differently. That was about internal conflict, and we blame each other. We bicker about it still, our Confederate flags and “dumb Southerns” tropes wearing thin. Our wounds over it are the bruises of domestic violence, dark and hidden under our sleeves and something we don’t talk about in the polite company of the United Nations or NATO. With the Civil War, it wasn’t an outsider doing the damage.
Perhaps Buffalo, the War of 1812 as a whole, is one of the last times that America felt utter destruction on her own land as part of an orchestrated battle. We have managed, 9/11 and Pearl Harbor aside, to keep the bloody dirty mud of war on other shores. Maybe the 149 homes burnt in Buffalo were one of the last times that America had to know destruction separate from civil war or meddling hands.
Oh, but Buffalo, do not forget, was a response for Newark. Burned only two weeks before by the Canadians. It’s hard for our South Park consuming generation to imagine, but conceive of Canadians as the 1800s version of the Latin American death squads of the last fifty years. They didn’t burn Newark alone. They had a little birdie, the American general George McClure, whispering in their ear. The troops gave little warning, only a few hours, before torching Newark. They removed the old, the ill, and the infants from their homes and sat them in the snow to watch as their homes went up in flames. Reports are that many of them died there in the snow, unable to find their way to shelter.
The burning of Newark was not without permission from the American leadership, although the protocol for destroying Newark had required advance notice be given to the town and that special care be taken to avoid leaving the population homeless or destitute. General McClure and his Canadian volunteers had given the town no such notice, and the transgression, a clear violation of the standards of war at the time, set the stage for the burning of Buffalo and other brutalities.
And here we are. Our photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of brutalities gathering in stacks around us.
We are so angry that the Russians interfered in our elections. And we should be. We should be furious and we should be blushing radish red as we look at Latin America’s history at the polls.
We are so nervous that the Russians are potentially blustering up again, getting their little furry hats and leather boots out of their closets. And we should be. We should be looking at history, this back and forth, this tit for tat, and we should be getting really damn nervous.
Because when America suffers, we only have to go back one iteration to notice that it often is America that has upped the ante. America who has committed a new or more wicked atrocity. America who has engaged a more powerful weapon. America who has dropped a bigger bomb. And in recent years, America has been racking up some pretty serious karma.