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January 17, 2008

Jefferson’s War

America’s First War on Terror – 1801 – 1805
Joseph Wheelan - ISBN – 9780786714049

This new book revisits The Pirate Coast (see my review of Nov. 2006). Of a sudden the Barbary Wars are being re-explored. I have always wondered about them, but “pirates” didn’t get me there. Unfortunately this one isn’t a lot better. There’s less minutiae, but still too much. Whatever happened to great editing?

He does observe that Jefferson felt it better to “dictate peace thru the expedient of war,” unlike the sniveling continentals who bribed their way into safety for their shipping. Strangely, the Brits, with the most powerful navy in the world, wouldn’t take on the smarmy, corrupt Muslim pirates, but the Americans whupped them rather decisively in a couple of years with half a dozen ships. Like most American wars, the reason it took 4 years is the ineptitude and incompetence of the first pair of naval commodores. Jefferson finally found a leader who would do what was necessary, after which it was done quickly.

Amongst the things I find most frustrating in both books is that the essence of the conflict is lost within the smothering trivia. Lord Horatio Nelson—formidable English commander and victor at Trafalgar—stated that Stephen Decatur, in his (casualty free) attack upon Tripoli, had accomplished the most daring raid of the era. Still the author provides but a page and a half on the battle before plunging into a lengthy dissertation on Decatur’s welcome home as a hero.

He drones endlessly about Eaton’s capture of Derna, including the number the shots fired, the cannon used, the deployment of troops, the response of the Mustafa, and . . . and letters to and from commanders, presidents, representatives, pashas, envoys, dilettantes . . . and most everyone. As well he discloses minute details about individual ransom costs, numbers of captives, detail about the captivity and slavery imposed, etc. “Tedious” fails to cover it. Eventually he describes the results and implications in a couple of pages.

To Wheelan’s credit he eventually discusses the ultimate benefit to the American fleet. Government finally determined that we could not survive without competent blue-water power, and the Barbary Wars honed the navy to an effective fighting force.

The U.S. navy demonstrated that you buy trouble at considerable cost when menacing America. We were different from continentals. Still are, most of the time. America hadn’t paid obeisance to English kings, and it certainly wouldn’t bow to penny-ante Islamic pashas who extorted tribute and filled their dungeons with “Christian dogs” for slaves and ransom. Further, facing down terror worked.

While things were never fully and truly settled, the Barbary pirates left us alone and Europe respected us. We should remind ourselves of that. While the continentals aren’t impressed this time around, the terrorists will be if we prevail, as we did 200 years ago.

Posted by respeto at January 17, 2008 1:42 PM