Two hundred years ago Sunday, 5,000 battle-hardened British troops captured Washington, D.C., and burned all the public buildings down.

They started with the Capitol, which housed the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, as well as the House and Senate. For kindling, they used the books in the Library of Congress, all 3,000 of them, as well as irreplaceable works of art. Then they marched to the White House and burned that down, too. The next day, they torched the State Department, Treasury Department and War Department.

It was a sorry incident in a war that never should have been fought. The cause of the war was the British navy's practice of replenishing its ranks by stopping American ships and kidnapping some of the sailors. Naturally, Americans resented this, and on June 18, 1812, Congress declared war.

What they didn't know was that the British cabinet, which already had its hands full fighting Napoleon, had banned the offending practice three weeks before. But it took six weeks for ships to cross the Atlantic, and by the time the news arrived here the killing had already started.

And it went on for almost three years. The final clash was the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 18, 1815, a resounding American victory.

But once again, what nobody knew was that the war had already been over for three weeks. The previous Christmas Eve, British and American diplomats met in Ghent, Belgium, and signed a peace treaty that returned everything to the way it was before. But the news didn't reach our shores until after the fighting at New Orleans was history.


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And for this, thousands of people died?

The War of 1812 wasn't our only dumb war. Most of them were -- the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, Vietnam, Iraq and, of course, the Indian Wars -- all of which created greater problems than they solved.

Then, of course, there was World War I, a four-year meat grinder that killed 16 million people and accomplished absolutely nothing -- except causing World War II, which chewed up another 100 million lives.

World War I actually ended on Nov. 9, 1918, but the cease-fire didn't go into effect for another two days. The generals delayed it until 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 so the war would end at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. How cool is that?

So they kept feeding men into the meat grinder, ordering attacks until the very last moment. And thousands more died. All for a public relations stunt.

Look, I'm no pacifist. There are times when we really do have to fight -- World War II, for example. But one of the best reasons for remembering history is to learn from it. Some of the lessons are positive ones of courage and devotion to duty. But others are cautionary tales about war's unintended consequences, most of them bad.

We are currently observing anniversaries of three important wars in our history -- the 200th of the War of 1812, the 150th of the Civil War, and the 100th of World War I.

Or rather, we aren't observing them. There has been barely a word, from either our politicians or the media. And Santayana was right: those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.