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.
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.