It just figures that the first day of the US Open at Bethpage Black gets rained out. It shares an anniversary with another unhappy accident.
Today is the 197th anniversary of the War of 1812, one of the strangest wars in American history. It’s been called many other names, such as the “Second War of Independence” or “Mr. Madison’s War”, after the sitting President James Madison. My favorite name for it, however, is the “War of Faulty Communication,” since a simple advance in technology would have prevented not only the war even being declared, but would also have stopped its largest battle from even starting.
The young United States was fighting largely for respect. Both Napoleonic France and Great Britain, in constant warfare since 1793, wanted to use the U.S. as leverage in trade and military gamesmanship. American trade suffered from British harrassment–especially the “impressment” of sailors–and French meddling. Furthermore, in defiance of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the British remained in forts on America’s western frontier, providing arms and supplies for local Native groups to raid on encroaching American settlements.
Yet when Congress passed the war resolution on June 18, 1812, many of the major abuses by the British were being resolved. A month before, the prime minister died, and Lord Liverpool formed a new government, one which sought a more accomodating stance with the United States. On June 16, just two days before the declaration of war, Parliament voted to rescind many of the aggressive maritime measures that caused American anger in the first place. If there was even a telegraph line, let alone a phone or the Internet, this war would’ve never happened.
If you asked the generals on both sides, it shouldn’t have happened–not in their military conditions in 1812. Britain was in no shape to get into another conflict. It was busy in the Peninsular War in Spain against Napoleon, as well as leading the alliance against the French via the mainland, aiding their Continental allies as the French armies got stuck in Russia. Britain controlled the seas with its huge navy, but it was needed to blockade Europe, and few ships could be spared.
The United States was in worse shape. The standing army was only about 7,000, and recruits were hard to come by outside of the South and West. The war was extremely unpopular in New England, where they threatened secession if their commerce was further curtailed. The navy was virtually nonexistent: a whopping 14 ships, with 6 frigates and no heavy-hitting ships of the line, compared to Britain’s 600 vessel monster.
The war was concentrated on the high seas, the Great Lakes, the coastal towns of the Chesapeake Bay, the western frontier and the Gulf coast. Most battles were small affairs, especially in the west where the British had to use Canadian militia and native allies to buttress their small ranks. This changed in 1814, when the waning of the Napoleonic Wars allowed Great Britain to allocate more resources to the American front. This resulted in the burning of Washington, DC and the siege of Baltimore–the very same siege that gave birth to our national anthem.
By December of 1814, the war was tiring on both sides. Britain wanted to maintain a strong hand in shaping post-Napoleonic Europe, and the war in the Americas weakened its position among its allies Austria and Russia. The United States, meanwhile, wanted to end a costly conflict that had few clear victories and some disastrous defeats. Both sides signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 28, 1814, which ended the war.
Or did it?
Somehow, Andrew Jackson did not get the message. Maybe his DSL connection was down, or the network admin was doing maintenance. Instead, he decides to give the British the beating of a lifetime. On January 8, 1815, Jackson’s Americans soundly defeat an invading British force at New Orleans. It made Jackson a national hero, but it never should’ve happened. It wasn’t until the next month, when the British invaded Mobile, Alabama, that news reached the South of the peace treaty.
So what did the War of 1812 teach us, kids?
(1) Always check your messages. It’ll avoid unfortunate misunderstandings and prevent escalation of conflict. Jackson needed a Blackberry. Lord Liverpool should’ve Twittered his actions.
(2) Never get caught with your pants down. You’ll end up running like the US Army at the shameful Battle of Bladensburg in 1814. It was widely considered the worst defeat in US military history.
(3) Always get the “last licks.” The schoolyard prepares us for the battlefields of life. Jackson ended up with the last punch in 1815. In 1828, he’d be elected President.
The Historic Effect—and Potential Danger—of Julian Assange
Show me a completely honest, transparent nation, and I will show you a nation that will cease to exist.
The Persian Wars. The Peloponnesian Wars. Roman Slave Revolts. The First and Second Jewish Revolts. The Crusades. The Hundred Years’ War. The French and Indian War. The American Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The American Civil War. World War I. World War II. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam. Korea.
All of these events would have ended differently had Julian Assange’s Wikileaks existed then and disclosed classified information to the public. Some of these events would’ve ended for the better. Yet most would’ve ended for the worst.
This is the problem. This is the potential impact of Julian Assange’s manic quest.
To be honest, as I perused the volumes—and I mean volumes—of documents released by Assange’s site over the year, there is no one real opinion on their immediate danger. On the one hand, military releases of troop movements, theater tactics, and potential terror targets do pose a current threat; American lives are put in immediate risk.
Yet if you look at the diplomatic dispatches and e-mails, they rarely reveal anything Earth-shattering, at least to those familiar with foreign affairs. To many in the know, it comes as no surprise that China is ready to wash their hands of Kim Jong Il and the failed North Korean state. Silvio Berlusconi’s admiration of Vladimir Putin—and signaling of closer ties between Russia and Italy—was a long time in development. And it should shock no one that the Saudis so loudly exhorted the United States to bomb Iran in order to protect their petro-fueled theocratic fiefdom.
The information itself (barring the military documents) is not really at issue. The real crisis lies in the concept of full disclosure. Assange, at least outwardly, declares that his aim is to combat the lies, deception and dishonesty of government and big business.
Either Assange is a naïve fool—or, more probable, Assange is a canny opportunist ready to cash in on privileged information.
Can a nation-state function effectively if all their cards are on display to everyone at the table? History is not on Assange’s side.
If Wikileaks existed in 480 BCE, the Persians would have known of the other passage around Thermopylae well in advance, thereby avoiding the 300 Spartans lying in wait and heading straight for Athens and Sparta itself.
If Wikileaks existed in 71 BCE, the slave army led by Spartacus would have known of the Apennine passes that could’ve caused Roman armies to outflank him, drawing out the rebellion and depleting Roman power.
If Wikileaks existed in 1776 through 1781, it would’ve released the names and identities of the members of the Culper Spy Ring, a ring of patriot spies on Long Island that were absolutely necessary to George Washington in helping to defeat the British in the American Revolution. Those identities were so secret that the public didn’t learn of them until the late 1930s.
If Wikileaks existed in 1914, it would’ve released the secret dispatches between Germany and Mexico well before the infamous Zimmermann Note, urging the Mexican government to wage war on the United States. Our entry into World War I may have been accelerated, and who knows what would’ve happened.
If Wikileaks existed in 1941, it would’ve released the notes and research from British intelligence at Bletchley Park, especially their work on breaking the Enigma code, a secret German code used to communicate U-Boat movements at sea.
If Wikileaks existed in 1943, it would’ve released the Navajo code used by the US Marines in sending coded messages to our Marines in the Pacific theater—much to the delight of our Japanese opponents.
If Wikileaks existed in 1949, it would’ve released the flight status and schedules of cargo planes dropping supplies on a besieged Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. Don’t be surprised if squadrons of Soviet MiGs were just itching for those schedules.
If Wikileaks existed in 1962, during 13 terrible days in November, God knows what would’ve happened.
It may be unpleasant. It may be distasteful. It may even be undemocratic. Yet the brutal reality is that most of our effective policymaking happens behind closed doors outside of the public eye. If everything were held public, if everything were up for public scrutiny and debate, nothing would be accomplished.
If Assange’s motives are altruistic, then his end result would be a hyper-sized version of the New England town meeting, where every policy decision is debated, re-debated, amended, and voted on by all constituents. Even in New England, this model of direct democracy doesn’t work, especially for larger municipalities.
What then would lead a rational person to believe that this method would work for a planet of 6-7 billion people—especially since a large chunk of them don’t have access to decent electricity, let alone a computer with Internet access?
Yet Assange’s handiwork has an even more dangerous potential. His goal of undermining secrecy and subterfuge is a threat against our individuality, both our own and our respective nations.
As individuals, our identity is based on the fact that there is something about us that is unique from our neighbors. Part of that unique character is our information. Few of us, Assange included, would be willing to let our personal lives be an open book for the world to see.
Yet once our secrets are revealed, a part of our identity is lost. If Assange can create such havoc for governments and companies, what is to stop him from releasing massive lists of IRS tax returns, Social Security numbers, report cards—even e-mail addresses and passwords?
Mind you, this isn’t Facebook, a site where one voluntarily gives up some of their privacy—and can even regulate what is shown to the public. Wikileaks seems hellbent on making every person on the planet a public figure against their will. It’s tantamount to specicide, a murderous attack on all human beings.
Nations and governments, like individuals, also rely on privileged information to set them apart from their counterparts. If Julian Assange thinks that he can create a one-world government just by baring the secrets of the world at everyone’s feet, then he is in for a rude awakening.
Wikileaks will not stop secrets. Wikileaks will not stop espionage. Wikileaks will not stop closed-door meetings. It did-and will continue to-affect the security of national information. Even more ironically, Wikileaks has adversely affected the freedom of access to documents that SHOULD be accessible to all Americans.
Yet the potential dangers of Assange’s mischief are too tragic to ignore. His attacks on secrecy have already caused irreparable damage to our national security. It has embarrassed and dismantled years of diplomacy among nations.
Even more importantly, Wikileaks is an attack on national and individual identity. The nations of the world, not just the United States, must recognize this.
Julian Assange is no fool. He even has masses of followers and disciples; computer hackers, programmers and the like willing to break into any computer for the best information.
This is why his work is so dangerous: his extortion of information (potentially for monetary reasons) amounts to an act of terrorism that could pale in comparison to any missile or pipe bomb.
For the first time in this century, the nations of this planet could finally unite in a common cause: protecting their very individuality against a common threat.
That threat is Julian Assange—a man much more dangerous than Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il.
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