Skip to comments.Victory in Tripoli-How War with the Barbary Pirates teaches us how to fight the war on terror.
Posted on 05/09/2006 5:43:04 AM PDT by SJackson
Frontpage Interviews guest today is Joshua E. London, a Washington, D.C.-based writer. He has written on politics and public policy for many publications, including the American Spectator, Human Events, National Review Online, and Details: Promoting Jewish Conservative Values. He holds an M.A. in social science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, Davis. He is the author of the new book Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation.
FP: Joshua London, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
London: Thank you for inviting me.
FP: I want to talk to you today about how Americas war against the Barbary pirates can be compared to the terror war today and what lessons we can apply from it. But first, tell us what motivated you to write Victory in Tripoli.
London: I was eager to find a historical subject that I could really sink my teeth into and do something substantive with. I was in the market for an exciting project.
A very good friend of mine suggested the actual historical topic. His father was a Marine, and the Barbary wars feature heavily in the historiography of the early US Marine Corps. I was only sort of vaguely aware of Americas Barbary escapade, and knew the first line of the Marine Corps hymn, but that was about it. But then I usually prefer approaching subjects where Ill need to learn, or relearn, a great deal.
The obvious parallels between Americas Barbary wars and the current global war on terror, and even the war in Iraq, were far too enticing for me to ignore. The Barbary States are modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libyaknown collectively to the Arab world as the Maghrib (Land of Sunset), denoting Islams territorial holdings west of Egypt. For centuries these Arab nations encouraged and sponsored maritime piracy against Christians, often targeting civilian populations with slave raids. These were Arab-Muslim pirates from Arab Muslim nations, engaged in what was understood to be religiously sanctioned piracy against non-Muslims.
Most of the histories of that general period make almost no mention at all of the conflict, or, when it is mentioned, it is little more than a few trivial lines, or it only appears in the footnotes. There were a few works that focused on the Barbary story, but they were hardly in wide circulation, and the more scholarly titles had been out of print for decades. Even with these, however, the accounts were colored by a sort of Good guy vs Bad guy patriotic simplicity or exhibited somewhat crude understandings of Islam and of the Mahgribparticularly from a post-9/11 vantage point.
So when I recognized that there was a need for some better history, and that I could really make some sort of contribution to the historical literature, I went for it. Once I realized that this history might potentially have a lot of contemporary relevance without my having to connect the dots or politicize my efforts, I took it up in earnest.
FP: What was the significance of the Barbary wars to the United States, to the US Navy, and to the US Marine Corps?
It is a real lesson for us today. The Barbary conflict underscores the importance of having and demonstrating national strength and resolve.
Following our independence, America was a fairly weak nation, impoverished of both funds and the will to defend itself abroad. In international terms, weakness breeds contempt. Almost immediately we were beset by Old World European interests and politics, and preyed upon by pirates and thug states. Only once we resolved to stand up and fight, and actually smashed the hell out the pirates, did we finally establish ourselves on the international scene.
The Barbary conflict essentially plunged the United States headlong into the convoluted world of Old World mercantilist geopolitics, foreign affairs, and Middle East intrigue. The conflict became one of the defining challenges, forcing the young republic to sink or swim, as it were, with the worlds super-powers.
Quickly, the United States was compelled to fashion its own course, based on its own principles, and relying largely on its own resourcesand in the process we forged a path that others were to follow. So in a very real sense, the Barbary conflict was a direct extension and another dimension of the robust history of Americas independence and of our nations direct struggles with England, France, and the politics of Europe.
The Barbary wars also directly gave birth to the US Navy and the US Marine Corps, and even gave the Marines their first real hero.
Between 1785 and 1793 pirates from Algiers captured a total of 13 American merchant ships, taking hostage and enslaving 119 American sailors. During this period America was terrified that the other Barbary States would become belligerent as well.
The threat of this Muslim terrorism was very real, and the horrific, blood-curdling (often hyperbolic) tales of the potential fates for Christians who fell victim to this piracy was in very wide circulation. (These reports are fairly hair-raising even to modern ears.) As a direct response to this terror and this growing hostage crisis, the US House of Representatives finally passed (on March 27, 1794), and the Senate ratified, legislation that gave birth to the United States Navy.
At that time the Marines were the least esteemed and lowest compensated outfit of the armed services; they were little more than naval police, guarding ships and naval installations. The Marines were also used for ceremonial parades. The service was pretty harsh and miserable and so tended to attract mostly low-life and riffraff. Although the Marines did not really even begin to gain any substantive institutional respect in the armed services until WWI, their shining moment in the Barbary wars was the first clear, brilliant example of their potential.
The US Marines proved the deciding element in an otherwise crazy scheme. Naval agent and former diplomat William Eaton led a rag-tag and motley mercenary army of about 400 hundred Arab and Christian warriors on a westward march from Alexandria, Egypt across the Libyan desert carrying out a US-authorized covert operation to foment a rebellion and stage a coup against the Pasha of the city and regency of Tripoli.
Eaton and his forces engaged the enemy at the Battle of Derna, and conquered the fortified city and held the enemy off while planning the forward offensive march on the city of Tripoli. In both the march across the desert and the subsequent Battle of Derna, the US Marines proved absolutely vital and valiant in maintaining order and preventing the entire campaign from disintegrating into chaos or succumbing to anti-Christian bloodshed within the ranks.
These Marines were Lieutenant Neville Presley OBannon, Marine Sergeant Arthur Campbell, and Marine Privates Bernard O'Brian, Edward Steward (who died of wound sustained in the battle), David Thomas (who was wounded in the Battle of Derna), James Owens, John Wilton (who was killed during the battle), and one other private whose name has been lost to history.
When OBannon planted the Stars and Stripes on the enemy ramparts at Derna, it was the first time a US flag had ever been raised in conquest in a foreign land.
It is this action, and the valor and conduct of the Marines, which is forevermore enshrined in the opening lines of the Marine Corps hymn: From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli. The Battle of Derna also gave us the Mameluk sword that is worn on parade and formal occasions by Marine commissioned and warrant officers.
The Mameluk sword is patterned after the sword worn by Ahmad Qaramanli (the American-backed rightful claimant to the throne and brother of the ruling pasha), which he carried while a refugee with the Mameluks in Egypt. Ahmad presented his jeweled sword to Lieutenant OBannon as a tribute to the Marines bravery and valor. It is also the oldest weapon in continuous use by the United States Armed Forces.
FP: Tell us the parallels between America's war against the Barbary pirates and the current global war on terror.
London: As I said before, Americas war against the Barbary pirates was essentially Americas first war on Islamic terror. Soon after independence, the dawning of a new era and a new century, we were attacked without provocation by Muslim terrorists. The attacks escalated before we even recognized the danger, or acknowledged the enemy. These Islamic partisans operated under the protection of rogue Arab states ruled by cunning and ruthless dictators. Even beyond this sort of obvious, surface level, comparison, however, the parallels really come into sharp focus.
The United States encountered Islam very early in our history. Indeed, our earliest diplomatic efforts with Barbary, in 1786, explicitly revealed the religious nature of the conflictthe jihadfacing the United States.
The enemy was entirely forthright about all this. The usual explanations and excuses cited by apologists and conspiracy theorists dont apply here. All that rubbish about post-colonial nationalistic self-determinism, racism, regional squabbles, economic depression, evil oil interests, the State of Israel, Zionist/Neoconservative cabals, the military-industrial complex, infidel troops on holy soil, foreign policy backlash, evil CIA manipulation, or, I dont know, secret plots hatched by the Trilateral Commission, whatever None of these explain or enlighten anything about this.
The United States of America became entangled in the Islamic world and was dragged into conflict with the Barbary States because of the religious obligation within Islam to bring the outside worldthe House of War (the Dar al-Harb)into the peace of the House of Islam (the Dar al-Islam), and to eradicate unbelief.
Sluggish in recognizing the full nature of the threat, America entered the war well after the enemys call to arms. Poorly planned and feebly executed, the American effort proceeded badly and at great expenseresulting in a hastily negotiated peace and an equally hasty declaration of victory.
From this point, the other similarities and parallelsthe hostage crises, the arms for hostage deals, the basic communications failures, the tactical shortsightedness, the presumption, largely wrong, of shared normative or moral and cultural understanding, the back-handed dealings, the political calculations and expediency, the bureaucratic infighting, the undermining of the national will, the parsimony and lack of political nerve, etc.become almost ridiculously obvious.
FP: So what lessons of that war can help us in todays global war on terror?
London: There are some very basic historical lessons, the validity of which has been verified in conflict after conflict down through the ages, that hold equally true in this context. Such lessons are easily reduced to truisms or even clichéd slogans. For example, Wars are best fought by Generals in the field, not Politicians at home, Unilateral Action is better than Multilateral Inaction, If you desire peace, you must prepare for war, and the always popular, there is no substitute for victory. These are all quite true and substantively so, and easily emerge from the history if the Barbary conflict. There are several other, no less weighty, lessons of this sort that can be readily learned from this historical experience.
To strike a broader note, however, Id say that first, and perhaps most importantly, we need to be honest about the enemy we face before we can seriously try and understand what they are really doing and trying to accomplish. It handicaps our efforts to presume that our enemy is like us, or shares our world-view and our cultural understandings, or, for that matter, to presume that most of the world wants peace and will rationally side with us, or even aid and abet us, given the chance.
The Barbary pirates were engaged in jihad first and foremost, and moneymaking only secondarily. The powerful nations of the world were content to endure this Barbary terrorism for reasons of national self-interest and out of a mercantilist understanding of the world. It was thought to be much simpler for them to bribe the pirates to stave off unwanted commercial competition than to actually neutralize the threat.
In contemporary terms, for example, was it really all that surprising that the French, Germans, and Russians stymied our efforts to go after Iraq at the United Nations? Is it really in our best interests to tread this sort of path with Iran?
FP: What are your views on the nature of Islam and the Arab world? Have things changed between the U.S. and the Arabs?
London: Very little has changed in the interaction between the U.S. and the Arabs over the past 200 years. (In fact, very little has changed generally in the internal dynamics of the Arab world for quite a bit longer than that.)
This is another of the lessons that stuck me in researching and writing this book. The relationship between America and the Arabs has become a lot more complex, diplomatically, politically, economically, etc., just as the world has become a lot more complex, and certainly America is more of a cultural, political, economic and military force. At a fundamental level, however, nothing has changed.
As for the nature of Islam Islam is not a religion of peace.
While I do not wish to equivocate or otherwise hedge my bets, I should point out that I came to this conclusion after thorough research, not prejudice. I came by this honestly.
I approached my initial research into Islam with tremendous respect, admiration, and sensitivity, as I would approach the study of any faith. Islam is, after all, one of the great monotheistic religions of the world.
Islam has rich traditions, history, and practices that have given, and continue to give, meaning to the lives, and succor to the souls and consciences, of many millions of people all over the world, and for well over a millennia.
Islam is not the enemy and, as a faith, should be treated with respect. Indeed, I believe that any outsider, or non-Muslim, in trying to understand Islam, should adopt a certain broad mindedness. All religions have an emotional, psychological, sociological, personal, and public context, which at various points along the line is subject to disputes and conversations as to authenticity and meaning over a broad spectrum of interpretations, doctrines, and practices.
Yet not all the moral and cultural teachings of Islam are equally wholesome, particularly from the perspective of Western (or perhaps I should say American) Civilization. More to the point, Islam lends itself to pathological abuses that can be extremely persuasive, extremely popular, and extremely difficult for outsiders to meaningfully differentiate. Islam also has much in it that is not wholly and manifestly simpatico with our way of life.
Islam is not the enemy here, but it is also not a wholly benign presence today.
All of which is a long-way round of saying that it is not so simple to pinpoint the crux of our problem with Islam. For one thing, all Muslims believe in the institution of jihad, the struggle. It is a very basic and relatively straightforward doctrine in Islam. Not every Muslim is inclined to do anything about this, or even feels obligated to take up jihad every time someone with some semblance of authority and legitimacy invokes the concept. But that does not mean they are all opposed to such a struggle any more than the choice of many Westerners not to join the police force or the armed services means they do not support those institutions.
Even outside this context, not all fundamentalist Muslims are radical, and not all militant Muslims are fundamentalist. Violence isnt always the modus operandi of every Muslim group demanding change, just as religion isnt the justification or source of legitimacy of every Muslim group committed to the use of violence to achieve political endseven when the groups members are themselves deeply religious.
Nor are all of the religiously violent in perfect accord doctrinally or even ideologicallyand yet they can still all agree that they hate us.
Indeed, if our experience with Iraq is to teach us anything, Sunni and Shia terrorist groups, even when avowedly secular in composition, can indeed work together in common cause against a shared enemy.
We in the West generally approach the world around us with the notion that somehow everyone is just like us at that particular moment, and that everyone really just wants to be happy and free. We often work from the supposition that reason and rationality are universal modes, and that everyone is fundamentally in agreement about all this, or at least can be brought to agree about all this through reason.
But this is merely wishful thinking. For example, there is not, as David Gress once brilliantly pointed out over a decade ago, an inevitable and compelling idea of liberty that runs directly, per the title of his book, From Plato to Nato. Liberty was not, and is not, a universal norm that all people desire at all times, or that everyone even understands in the same way.
So, to ground this in something very concrete: Islam means submission in Arabic, or to be more precise, the word Islam means submission, obedience, and peace simultaneously in Arabic. To put this in context, the word Islam means total submission to the will of Allah, and obedience to His law as revealed through the Prophet, Mohammed, thus it is only through this submission to His will and by obedience to His law that peace can be achieved.
Now is this really what the rest of us mean when we desire peace? Is it even close?
When even so basic a concept as peace eludes common understanding, why do we presume shared understanding of any other cultural norms? If all they were saying were, for example, give peace a chance, what would that actually mean for the rest of us?
What complicates all of this, and what is really at the heart of the matter here, is that there is a civil war of sorts taking place within Islam.
The Saudis have helped export this problem to the rest of the world, but it is largely an internal struggle. At the center of our problems is a jamboree of radicalized militant Islamic factions who pursue their own pet-parochial conflicts within each Muslim country, all with an eye towards a shared goal of expunging the local Western influences, eradicating unbelief, and bringing the whole into the peace of the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam). These groupssuch as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, etc.periodically clash with each other, but mostly they stay a lot more focused than, say, the US Congress.
Currently, we are already targeting these groups in conventional ways. We are going after their members and operatives, after their money and resources, and after the states and entities that harbor, aid, and abet them. What still needs doing, however, is to go after their legitimacy and authenticity.
In the Cold War we managed to attack our enemy rhetorically and ideologically as well as politically, economically, and militarily. We need to bring the same approach here. We need, in other words, to help bolster moderate Muslims and defeat the Islamist ideology in all its manifestations.
FP: What is your own view of the current war on terror, both in Iraq and generally?
London: I perceive very little to be cheery about in the short-term.
I support the war on terror, and I believe ardently that it needs fighting, and fighting well and hard. I also believe that there is no alternative for us in this conflict but victory.
In the long-term, Im essentially an optimist, in that I believe that evil will ultimately be vanquished and the good guys will ultimately win. My concern is that I may not be around to see thisand Im a young guy. Who knows, my great grandchildren, should I have any, might very well be reading interim historical accounts about all this in Arabic. Even still, in the end we will prevail.
As to the specifics, I think the Presidents approach is mostly good and largely right, but I think the politics of this have become poisonous. Western civilization seems to have lost the cultural self-confidence and strength to fight this thing properly. Tactically and militarily, things are moving along well enough, as these things go... Id prefer things to move faster and with a great deal more self-assurance.
FP: Joshua London, thank you for joining us here today.
London: Thank you again. It was a pleasure.
Tripolitan War ping
Ahhhh...protecting the world from the bad guys for a very long time.
Yes, isn't it curious, our first foreign war was against jihadis, too.
Navy and Marine Corps. Still the best for killing Jihadis, wherever they may lurk.
"Western civilization seems to have lost the cultural self-confidence and strength to fight this thing properly. Tactically and militarily, things are moving along well enough, as these things go... Id prefer things to move faster and with a great deal more self-assurance."
We are not dealing with "enemy combatants" - we are dealing with Islamic pirates.
"Thomas Jefferson, United States minister to France, opposed the payment of tribute, as he later testified in words that have a particular resonance today. In his autobiography Jefferson wrote that in 1785 and 1786 he unsuccessfully "endeavored to form an association of the powers subject to habitual depredation from them. I accordingly prepared, and proposed to their ministers at Paris, for consultation with their governments, articles of a special confederation." Jefferson argued that "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." Jefferson prepared a detailed plan for the interested states. "Portugal, Naples, the two Sicilies, Venice, Malta, Denmark and Sweden were favorably disposed to such an association," Jefferson remembered, but there were "apprehensions" that England and France would follow their own paths, "and so it fell through."
Paying the ransom would only lead to further demands, Jefferson argued in letters to future presidents John Adams, then America's minister to Great Britain, and James Monroe, then a member of Congress. As Jefferson wrote to Adams in a July 11, 1786, letter, "I acknolege [sic] I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro' the medium of war." Paying tribute will merely invite more demands, and even if a coalition proves workable, the only solution is a strong navy that can reach the pirates, Jefferson argued in an August 18, 1786, letter to James Monroe: "The states must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. . . . Every national citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion, and should fear to see it on any other element than the water. A naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both." "From what I learn from the temper of my countrymen and their tenaciousness of their money," Jefferson added in a December 26, 1786, letter to the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, "it will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them."
Jefferson's plan for an international coalition foundered on the shoals of indifference and a belief that it was cheaper to pay the tribute than fight a war. "
Europeans chose appeasesment while the US chose "to effect a peace thro' the medium of war." Same old same old - the US fighting the battles others won't or can't.
Personally, I think this is a fantastic, insightful, fun and very rewarding book about a truly under-appreciated chapter of our history.
Also, there have been a couple of other recent relevant notes about this book.
It was also recently favorably reviewed by the Jerusalem Post, the article is Jihad in the Days of Jefferson, as well as by Dr. Andrew Bostom also on Frontpagemag.com, Americas First War on Terror.
Also, as I learned earlier today from one of the other posters, the book is also getting scholarly attention. Ambassador Richard B. Parker, and a former US ambassador to Algeria and currently with the Middle East Institute, wrote in a recent review in the issue of the Middle East Journal (Winter 2006; Vol. LX, No. 1):
Victory in Tripoli [although not written for academics] is a good read about an exciting period and contains much information from a variety of sources about events that are little remembered today. It is worth the effort.
Here is what I and other reviewers at Amazon.com have said about this book (almost all of this is totally positive and very favorable).
Finally, for anyone who might be interested, Victory in Tripoli: How Americas War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, is also available very cheaply at ConservativeBookClub.com (AKA Human Events Book Club AKA the National Review Book Service), as well as through the usual channels like Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores).
I should also point out that Londons book is available through the Marine Corps Association bookstore
In short, I totally recommend this book, particularly as a gift for those serving our country (and not just for Marines or Naval personnel) it provides a wonderful lesson as to the broader background of are nations experience with Arab-Islamic-terror-thugs.
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