I feel like I’ve been star-spangled celebrating since I arrived in Baltimore three years ago. My first bike ride was out to Fort McHenry where I found myself actually tearing up a little at the Visitor’s Center film. That part where the star-spangled banner is waving and the song is playing and then the screen rises slowly to expose a view of the Star-Spangled Banner waving out over the fort? Even my deeply cynical heart can melt a bit, at least until I start to remember the terrible shit that’s been done in the name of patriotism and war. Then I started researching the War of 1812 for a book project about Baltimore museums, and suddenly I knew more about the War of 1812 than 99 percent of people I know. Lo and behold, I was leading bicycle tours of historic sites related to the war and writing blogs about the Battle Monument and Fort McHenry and co-writing a water ballet about the war and pretty much annoying all of my friends and neighbors with War of 1812 factoids. I was deep in it, sunk down in the details, and by the time the big celebration weekend came around, I was, frankly, War of 1812-ed OUT.
Baltimore, however, was not over it, and neither was the ladyfriend, so I found myself back on the bike, attempting to summon up some good old-fashioned party mood to share with the rest of the city. Our first stop was the Maryland Historical Society to pick up our Bicentennial Passports and do some genuine learning about the war, because really, isn’t that the least we can do before giving ourselves over to the gluttony of fried dough and fireworks? Actually, the MdHS was our second stop—I made us stop for a drink first, because I figured a half-price mimosa might grease the patriotism wheels. And then we locked our bikes to the parking meters on Park Avenue and headed inside. It was quiet—the expected bus tours sponsored by area companies weren’t coming til the afternoon—so we had the place to ourselves.
My favorite part of MdHS’s exhibit had to be the original Lady Baltimore statue from on top of the Battle Monument that has become for most of us the thing that splits traffic at Saratoga, but is also the first monument to the common soldier in the United States. She’d been up there since 1817 or something, and they finally took her down, replacing her with a recast version. The old one is seriously weathered. The woman working the front desk said she kind of looks like Voldemort, and that was a spot-on description. All the rough edges are gone—the eagle’s wingtips are worn down, the crown of thorns thornless . . . she’s seen a lot in the last almost-100 years, and it shows. I’m not one to be taken by artifacts, but there’s something about her that got me.
The rest of the exhibit was mostly an array of the Great Men of 1812 Maryland and their battles and when they fought them and with what guns. I found myself lazing on a bench while the ladyfriend read the plaques and things—I was in full resistance mode. I mean, this is a war that was barely fought—it was the closest vote to declare war in the country’s history. At the end of it things were basically the same as they were when it started, unless you were an American Indian, in which case the end of the war meant other things that are as American as war and patriotism: expansion and a dangerous little thing called “manifest destiny.”
In the last room of the exhibit, though, there was a display of stuff from the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore. Turns out they did a human flag back then, too, just like the one they did with school kids out at Fort McHenry. There was a celebratory weekend featuring reenactors and special seating for the politicians and donors and members of the press. There were badges and collectible plates and some lamp maker in London even made a lamp that looked just like the Battle Monument for the Baltimore market. Baltimore had been here before, celebrating an event that we kind of made up as a way to sell both the city and this thing called “the nation.” The more things change, I suppose.
Ok, so maybe I’m a bit cynical about Festivals of War, even if the war’s been over for a long time, but I come by that cynicism honestly. My dad fought two tours with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and he came back with the view of patriotic wars that can only be earned by that kind of fighting. He passed on to me a certainty that war is never the answer, and that anything that celebrates war contributes to making it seem normal, as if it is a reasonable choice. Like a cookie or a cigarette, if war is on the table, we’ll take it; don’t put it on the table in the first place. As for all this star-spangled celebrating, sure, it’s about a song and a flag, but it’s also about the war that both made those things, and needs those things. And yet even I couldn’t deny the visceral pleasure of seeing those Blue Angels planes zipping through the sky, my head cocked up, following the sounds. Those are the sounds of war, but as my dad—the pacifist—reminded me, they are the sounds of rescue from war as much as they are war machines themselves; for him, the plane was always a sign that the current hell he was in was about to end. It’s complicated.
And then we walked the rest of the way downtown, got some soft serve, sat and watched people and laughed and waited for the sun to come out and then walked to a bar filled with Yankees fans and other tourists for beer and buffalo chicken dip before heading home to watch the fireworks on TV. Because really, what the star-spangled fuck else are you going to do?