Daily Archives: November 22, 2003

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The Brits: Threat or Menace?

No, this has nothing to do with President Bush’s awesome speech in the UK this week. This is going back to 1805 and Master and Commander.

Bill Cork opined as how it was hard to cheer for Lucky Jack, given that the English were the bad guys. He enlarged upon this by pointing out that the French were our allies back then, as well as the obvious lessons of Irish and Acadian history. (These may succinctly be boiled down to the old joke: Why did the sun never set on the British Empire? Because God didn’t trust those people in the dark!) Meanwhile, his brother Jim championed the British, even to the point of claiming the American Revolution didn’t qualify as a “just war”.

You know, if history didn’t exist as a discussion topic, we’d have to invent it.

Well, look. My dad wrote his master’s thesis on the Corn Laws, which is certainly enough to turn anyone with the last name of O’Brien into an Anglophobe, even if his great-great-grandfather hadn’t been driven out of Ireland by fear of the Brits and the Famine. The village Cornelius (Connie) and his seven brothers emigrated from doesn’t even exist anymore. So, sure, I know what Bill Cork is talking about.

However, I also know what Jim Cork is talking about. The French were never great friends of the Irish, though occasionally it suited their schemes to “help”. Lafayette was a friend of America, and Ben Franklin found others as well. But the majority of his diplomacy consisted not in manipulating public opinion (or rather, the aristocracy’s opinion), but in convincing French statesmen that helping the US would help their schemes. Moreover, France was not always America’s ally from 1776-1812; in point of fact, Talleyrand and his crew got up to some pretty shameful stuff. McCullough’s biography of John Adams gives the fullest explanation of the XYZ Affair I’ve ever heard. After learning what that vague reference in my history book had really been all about, I was ready to string up quite a few dead French politicians, let me tell you. The whole episode led to an undeclared naval war between France and the US, which is not exactly happy friendly ally bunnies from most points of view. (Here’s Adams’ speech to Congress about our new ambassador to France getting thrown out of the country, btw.) I should probably also mention the fun and games with Citizen Genet. The whole question of relations between France, Britain, and the US was obviously tied to party — Jefferson’s friends were Francophiles, while Federalists tended toward notions of an Anglosphere — but it’s a cold truth that any small nation with lots of resources is bound to have trouble with superpowers. We were in that position. By acting friendly to everyone but very jealous of our rights, we managed to survive.

As for the justness of the War of 1812…had it been solely a naval war and untainted by hopes of conquering Canada, I think it would have been entirely just, as pressing crewmen was as wrong as it was common. (And note that the movie did not shy from having a pressed American as part of the Acheron‘s crew, or later on, pressing the whaler’s crew. The moviemakers weren’t condoning it, but the writers weren’t shy of including real history there.) However, having unleashed the British lion onto our shores, the war became an entirely just one of survival and freedom. The odds were uneven, but as usual, American ingenuity (superior American shipbuilding, Perry building ships in Put-In Bay, Jackson’s incredible tactics) managed to pull us out of the situation that stupid American politics had gotten us into.

But the American Revolution was just. Read the Declaration of Independence. Granted, there were other considerations…but there always are, in the course of human events. We had a good chance of winning and achieving our just goals, and we did. But I’m not going to argue about this, frankly. Like most Americans, I see the hand of God in the American Revolution. As messy and imperfect as America was and is, its creation and continued existence is a challenge to the world. If it had not existed, I suspect the twenty-first century would either not be all that different from the sixteenth, or that totalitarian nationalism would have swallowed the world. Democracy’s existence as a practical alternative was a near-run thing.

All that said, however, England has its place in history, too. France is a grand and glorious nation, but like Germany and Spain, it has this sad tendency to try to take over all of Europe. From medieval times onward, England basically acted against that tendency on everybody else’s part. Obviously, this was a matter of self-interest; but it still worked. I don’t really defend England’s empire; but everybody else in Europe was doing it. England just tended to hold onto its empire more effectively. Finally, we are indebted to England for spreading the common law and a certain style of administration and order around the world. The way they spread it was appalling, but the existence of an Anglosphere is not.

So here’s the point. My dad, who’s been known to give dire warnings against Anglophilia, who loves America with all his heart, loves Patrick O’Brian’s books. (Even though he wasn’t really an O’Brien or even Irish. Heck, if he wanted to be an O’Brian that much, he should count as self-adopted!) O’Brian didn’t shy away from the moral problems of being an English captain; by making his POV character, Maturin, an Irish Catholic revolutionary, he was confronting them head on. My dad loved the movie, too.

There’s a difference between making someone a hero of a story and glorifying his point of view. It was right that Jack Aubrey should be the kind of guy who’s sure of his own cause. It’s also right that the novels (and the movie, too) continually point out — obliquely, or through Maturin — the flaws in it, as well as what he gets right. So O’Brian was not afraid to take on the War of 1812 and let his characters feel toward it as a person of their time and background would. We Americans get to read in horror as, just as in history, the wrong (ie, English) side wins in the battle between the Chesapeake and Shannon, and Aubrey rejoices. I didn’t like him just then. But then, Aubrey could also commend the courage and skill of the dead American captain, Lawrence. It’s a hard scene for an American to read, but it’s a hard scene for an English person to read, too.

So yes, Jack Aubrey works for the Admiralty, and they don’t have most of my ancestors’ best interests at heart. Some of his men are the next best things to prisoners, and all of them live under nasty conditions. But that doesn’t mean I can’t cheer for their courage and cleverness, or wish them well. That certainly doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the deep friendship between guys as different as Aubrey and Maturin. And if I met Jack Aubrey back in the day, I’d undoubtedly like him (as long as I wasn’t in his way), though I’d undoubtedly get along better with geeky Stephen Maturin.

Welcome to history, which is to say, life. It doesn’t come in neat labeled bundles with everyone wearing labels of Good and Evil. A historical novel should not have that luxury, either.

Btw, if you’d like a little more historical distance in your male bonding, try Harry Turtledove’s ancient Greek version of Aubrey and Maturin in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea and The Gryphon’s Skull. Two cousins as different as day and night set out together to make money as traders and find a lot of trouble. (The books are written under his historical novel brandname, H.N. Turteltaub.) For a further twist, read David Drake’s Cinnabar Royal Navy series, which throws things into the far future and has a lot of fun. If you buy the 3rd volume, The Far Side of the Stars, you’ll get a free CD which includes, among other Drake books, the first and second volumes, With the Lightnings and Lt. Leary, Commanding. Dang, I do love Daniel and Adele!

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