Can Fireworks Make Defeat Sweet?The Art of Selling Victory
Updated: Jul 12
On April 27, 1749, in Green Park, London, 12,000 Britons were party to an historic happening: A celebration of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, and an end to almost eight years of European war. To mark the occasion, an extraordinary extravaganza was orchestrated and staged. George II, Rex Britannicus, commissioned: From Georg Frideric Handel, a triumphal suite for full orchestra, from Giovanni Niccolò Servandonia a replendent Baroque pavilion, and from Andrea Casali, a mind-blowing fireworks’ eruption to the rolling thunder of 101 iron cannons — altogether, a truly ecstatic ceremony of national power and glory.
Yet this triumphal ceremony marked no national triumph. The British assault on Spanish America was repulsed in a bloody debacle for the Crown. If the Royal Navy ruled the seas, then France and its allies ruled Europe. So what was there to celebrate on April 27?
Why, the United Kingdom, of course! Britons could clutch consolation that the Young Pretender had been crushed at Culloden, that the Cape Breton fortress of Louisbourg taken by loyal New England colonists, and two ringing — if wholly lopsided — naval victories at Cape Finisterre.
The Royal Fireworks show us three truths about war and ceremony: 1) Even losers have victories, and sometimes, a lot of them; 2) Don’t even think about letting defeat get in the way: a great story does not require official victory; 3) A few good battles, transformed by artful narrative and ceremony, can turn defeat into a permanent feeling of victory (within limits, of course!).
This is the true power and glory of sacred war ceremony, properly packaged. Wars’ physical fallout is not forever. How soon it is washed away! What can live forever, however, is what we think and believe about what happened. What we continue to feel—often for centuries—is what really matters.
Here is where scriptural narrative and sacred ceremony take over from war's evanescent blood and boom. Hence, when war ends, it also continues — and it moves along three compelling vectors. Good news for the special effects and makeup crews: Memorial, ceremonial, and celebration are in their full control.
Vector 1: Cherry picking the good fight. Identifying the battlefield jewels that most brightly refract the nation’s greatness.
Vector 2: Editing the narrative. Then cut the gems so that heroism, sacrifice, and transcendence gleam like fire.
Vector 3: Staging sacred ceremony. Reconsecrate the experience and center it emotionally in the national psyche, so that every participant of sacred ceremony feels as if they had lived the battle.
Still savoring our bitter Fourth of July, 2021, Americans might reflect on how we massage victories out of taunting defeats. Ever since our founding, Americans too work music and fireworks into grand ceremony to make the best of "inconvenient" war outcomes. Like our British cousins—indeed, any self-respecting imperial enterprise—we primp and rouge America’s "sub-optimal" wars so they show well in the pantheon of national identity.
For example, the War of 1812—or as John C. Calhoun declared, our “Second American Revolution”—was a debacle. So the spinmeisters picked out a pocketful of battlefield glory. At sea, a slew of frigate duels read like a roll call of victory. Even defeats could be enshrined in myth, like Captain Lawrence of the defeated Chesapeake, whose last words became the immortal: “Don't give up the ship!” Then there was the fleet action on Lake Erie, where Perry made victory imperishable by informing Madison, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Even big, humiliating defeats, like Cochrane's burning of Washington and the White House, were groomed into heroic resistance by reason that even "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there." Like a rock, America abides! Then it was the nation's great fortune, after making a “mission not accomplished” peace—much akin to the Aix La Chapelle treaty of 1748—to have Andrew Jackson lay on a bloody beat-down of British arms — postwar. Talk about ending on a high note!
Thus, cherry-picking 1812 was easy: Since the war ended in a 0-0 tie, only on-the-field exploits mattered. The spinmeisters could weave a narrative out of authentic battlefield glory alone, however slanted the selection. Moreover, all that glory had a point: Don't mess with the U.S.!
For decades after, 1812 was elevated as a core message of American national unity, with Jackson as a heroic president--and 1812 hero Winfield Scott running for president, as late as 1852--and 1812 hero-frigates like Constitution still celebrating the nation's birthday in the eyes of the world. Behold “Old Ironsides” in Valetta harbor, Malta, on Washington’s birthday, 1837 (right alongside accommodating British Battleships!). Sacred ceremony makes the point: That who we are as Americans is a vision of unbroken victory from The Founder to the sea battles of 1812 (Constitution defeated and seized four British frigates).
Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s path-breaking book, The Culture of Defeat, explores how nations—as bonded kinship communities—collectively cope with the trauma of shame that comes with defeat in war.
The most powerful and positive way to cope with defeat is to transform shame into transcendence. Yes, we lost the war, yet our spirit triumphed. Shared sacrifice and privation renewed our commitment to one another, and to the national community. Defeat may have humbled us in the present, yet as it made us stronger, so the future must still belong to us.
This is exactly how the South—formerly the “Confederate Nation”—responded to its fall. How, exactly? Cherry-picking the good fight, editing the narrative, staging sacred ceremony: and then selling it not just to the South, but the North as well [see the conclusion of Connolly and Bellows, God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind].
Yet some wars are so disheartening and so mismanaged that not the most assiduous cherry-picking, nor the most gaslit story editing, nor the most deceitful ceremonial, can mask the truth. Such was the postwar dead hand of World War I.
The Western Allies, however, were the titular and treaty victors (while everyone else were disgraced losers). Strange to tell, France, Britain, and the United States, after just a few years, failed to see it that way. France was broken, awaiting the apocalyptic revelation of Spring, 1940. Britain was mired in class struggle and Irish strife. Only the U.S. was victorious, free and clear (Japan was the grifter-victor).
This exalted realization notwithstanding, a decade after war the glory-feeling was gone. Sidney Fay showed (in Origins of the World War, 1928) that Germany was not alone the guilty party, Maxwell Anderson’s play (and movie) What Price Glory, and Eric Maria Remarque’s Hollywood film, All Quiet on the Western Front, cemented in the American mind that 90,000 boys had died for nothing.
America is still in the grip of irresistible historical lure: The gnawing need to celebrate identity through sacred, and martial, ritual. Yet now that the nation is ruled by a Woke elite of “globalists" that decry any expression of "nationalism" as racist and anti-democratic, the agonistes of our nation now has a direct military and foreign policy component. The American elite remains committed to its imperial station while enfolding all domestic Woke policy expectations. Such a polity can never win, let alone fight, another real war.
The World War I memorial in Westport, Connecticut, where I grew up, shows a mournful soldier, with rifle and full kit: A bronze Doughboy eternally grieving. America’s aversion to Great War sacred ceremony shows us how a nation cannot “fix” even a victory for which there is no collective belief. Ceremony hath its limits.
Yet there is a more troubling counterpoint. If a nation cannot successfully celebrate unambiguous victory, what of a nation that forces sacred ceremony on deep and stubborn defeat?
Great Britain entered World War I on the national-spiritual hook of a unified expectation: A Second Trafalgar. In my paper--(The Might That Failed: Jutland and the Wages of Ceremonial Battle)--presented at the MacMillan 2019 Naval History Symposium, and published now in the International Journal of Naval History — I argue that British identity itself was leashed, in 1914, to the cathartic realization of a second Trafalgar (Exclusive to readers here, I offer access to a pictorial addendum I put together to accompany this paper. Enjoy!).
Indeed, the entire myth of British world power throughout the 19th century was suckled on the milk of primal authority, realized in a single, ecstatic moment of national transcendence in 1805, at Trafalgar. For a century, Britain’s status as primus inter pares among the Great Powers (first among equals) rested on the immaculate staying power of a single, if supreme event.
Hence, with a new war looming in 1914, the national reputation — or more centrally, the national esteem itself — suddenly rested on a renewal of world authority vested in decisive battle.
The Royal Navy failed to bring this trophy—or more properly, sacred chalice—home. Instead, the Admiralty protested that strategic inaction was the true key to victory. A botched, single test at sea between British and German battle fleets only reinforced a gathering national judgment that the nation had failed its claim on greatness.
In the end, it was not so much even that Trafalgar had slipped away from Grand Fleet commanders. Rather, it was that they had visibly abdicated the very spirit of Nelson, the relentless, even insatiable, Pursuit of Victory, that “England expects.”
No postwar rituals: no forced, paper triumphs that sought to humiliate the German Hochseeflotte would ever bring their submission. The new competitor navies — the United States and Japan — were all too eager to wrest the Trident from the weary Lion. For them, Jutland elicited scorn, and not a little contempt.
Britain’s long, downward passage from Trafalgar to Jutland, is a warning to us--as a defeat that even the most artful or desperate propaganda and ceremony cannot retrieve.
More troubling yet than Jutland’s failure of sacred ceremonial was how it also marked a signpost to deep internal conflict riving British society. Labor vs. the The Ruling Class was the essence of Britain's dark passage in the 20th century’s first half and its fall from primacy and empire.
As Americans near the ceremony of failure in Afghanistan, our counterpart inner struggle is People vs. “Elites.” Hence the repeated failure of national ceremony — for 20 years — to re-cement sacred national bonds shows the world how sundered is our nation. Britain’s loss, a century ago, looms large for us too.