Torch of Friendship

Washington, D.C. Late August, after sunset. A brigade of foreign troops marches unhindered down Pennsylvania Avenue, leaving the U.S. Capitol in flames at their backs. When they reach the White House, the soldiers break in to find a lavish banquet laid out on the dining table. As they devour the feast, one of them sneaks upstairs to the master bedroom and steals one of the president's shirts. Their dinner consumed, the soldiers pile the expensive dining chairs on the table, retreat outside, smash the windows and throw in burning torches. The resulting column of flame and smoke can be seen for miles around.

The plot of White House Down 2? Perhaps these events would indeed make a great movie, but it would have to be a documentary, because the incident I just described really took place. What's more, the troops in question marched under the British flag, the Union Jack.

Of course, all this happened a long time ago. Two hundred years ago on Sunday, August 24, to be precise, at the height of the War of 1812. The redcoats who set fire to many of Washington's public buildings in August of 1814 soon moved north to lay siege to Baltimore's Fort McHenry, an event now immortalized in America's national anthem.

After Fort McHenry, the War of 1812 dragged on for four more inconclusive months. Eventually, both sides were exhausted. They made peace, and within a few years became friends and then allies. The rest is history -- the history of one of the most important alliances ever forged between two nations.

In 1823, no less a person than Thomas Jefferson wrote to President James Monroe: "Great Britain is the nation which can do us the most harm of any one, or all on earth; and with her on our side, we need not fear the whole world."

Nowadays, we still count on each other to help keep our two countries safe. In carrying out that task, we are closer today than ever. Far from fighting each other, our soldiers, sailors and airmen train together, deploy together and recuperate together. British warships form part of American carrier task groups. U.S. and UK Rivet Joint aircraft cooperate in the skies over Iraq to provide intelligence in the fight against ISIL terrorism. Soon, U.S. planes will be able to fly from UK aircraft carriers, and vice versa. American and British wounded warriors have competed together at the Warrior Games in Colorado, and will do so again in a few weeks at the Invictus Games in London.

Needless to say, we've put the events of August 1814 far behind us. So much so, in fact, that when the British prime minister, David Cameron, visited the White House two years ago, he and President Obama, fresh from watching a March Madness basketball game together, traded wisecracks about the burning. The redcoats "made quite an impression," Obama said. "They really lit the place up."

"I can see you've got the place a little better defended today," Cameron replied. "You're clearly not taking any risks with the Brits this time."