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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Hindsight

The War of 1812? Don’t remind me

In 1814, the US experienced everything a country would want to forget. Which is exactly why we should be thinking about it now.

Anniversaries are catnip for historians. They concentrate attention, they stimulate conversation, and the public likes them too. Just look at Lyndon Johnson—50 years later, a once unpopular president is all over the news, with a Broadway play to boot. But not all anniversaries can be compressed into a peppy Twitter feed, and the summer of 2014 will bring a flurry of complex opportunities for reflection. LBJ’s partisans, riding high over the Civil Rights Act of July 1964, will have to confront the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August. We will also see the centennial of the world’s failure to avert war in the summer of 1914.

Then there is another anniversary, below the radar, which New Englanders have safely ignored these past two years. If you haven’t heard much about this bicentennial, there’s a good reason. Nearly everything about the War of 1812 was uncomfortable, and remains so. It is there in the back of our minds—a half-second of recognition during “The Star-Spangled Banner” or a glimpse of the USS Constitution from a traffic jam on the Zakim Bridge. But it remains obscure, or just as often, misunderstood, its frustrations enshrouded by patriotic bunting.

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