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Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015

" . . . to the shores of Tripoli"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's not real Christian, I know, but Wow!, did my heart leap up when I beheld that the small handful of marksmen on board the warship U.S.S. Bainbridge, acting on their own and putting to use all that training they must've received to counteract the fiercely rolling waves and the movement of their human targets, blew away the Kalashnikov-bearing teenage Somali pirates -- they of perfect teeth and rippling arm muscles.

"Pop!" went the snipers' rifles in unison.

"Poof!" went the Somali pirates' heads as the U.S. snipers' bullets struck those Somalis' heads and pulverized them.

"Splish!" went the small remains of the pirates' heads as they rolled off the deck and into the Gulf of Aden.

"How delightful!" Henry Higgins might've exulted.

The next thing we American viewers knew, the head of their government, such as it is in that chaotic, lawless land, was warning the Americans that they'd now be the primary target of all their teenagers' inchoate rage. Deprived of their means of livelihood! The nerve of those Americans! And so, in the past few days, it has proved to be!

Surely, as long as our government so freely doles out millions of dollars to these youngsters, these kids will continue to grab rich Americans. After all, what do they have to lose? Their country is one of the very poorest on the globe, and they've learned that the U.S. no longer has the will to resist: it's easier to pay off these rude and daring youngsters than it is to blow off the tops of their heads.

"Pirates?!" What a cool term, not used seriously in more than a couple of centuries. A little like the terms "highwayman," "ironmonger," and "chimneysweep," to name a few. Maybe the name they've applied to themselves is one of the reasons the general public here has been so loath to take them seriously. A few months ago, when I first heard about these Tripolitan pirates, a smidgeon of memory came rushing back to me. (Hey, at age 69 I'll settle for a "smidgeon," thanks)

When I was a kid, I started collecting Random House's "Landmark Editions," histories that began appearing in 1951, and were written for adolescents. Each one cost $1.50, and one day I happened to buy George P. Hunt's The Story of the U.S. Marines, illustrated by Charles J. Mazoujian.

It was there that I learned about the origins of the Marine Corps, and about their action in the lawless precincts of the Bashaw of Tripoli.

I read that book when I was 11 years old. Funny, what I remember is not what the book actually says. (What a promising topic for a scholarly paper: "Reading What's on the Page vs. Reading What We Think's on the Page"). What I remember at age 69 reading at age 14, is that the recently established Marines, meant originally to accompany U.S. Navy ships, to hang from the rigging like monkeys, to ward off on-coming pirates and other vermin, in the pre-atomic year of 1801, sailed into Tripoli, refused to pay the Bashaw the outrageous amount of money he demanded to let the Marines pass by, then swept all those pirates off the decks of their ships and into the sea.


That's what I remember. That's, you'll have to admit, the way the story ought to have unfolded. But, unfortunately, re-reading it again (I just happened to find a copy of George P. Hunt's 1951 book on the Marines in a Pittsburg, Kan., junk store a few years ago) after half a century, that's not how the story went. No, the historian Hunt, while he surely must've known the kind of plot that would appeal to his natural male adolescent readers, must've slowed down and decided to pay attention to the truth of the episode. And so, here's the truth as Mr. Hunt saw and wrote it:

The U.S. decided to create a new branch of the armed services, because "(p)irates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa were preying on American shipping. . . . In July, 1798, (Congress) re-established the Continental Marines -- to consist of thirty-three officers and 848 enlisted men." (The few, the special, you bet!) In 1801, the Marines turned to their chief adversary. "The Bashaw (ruler) of Tripoli had been one of the haughtiest and most troublesome of the Barbary pirates. He had raided American shipping. He had demanded -- and received -- ransom money for the return of his captives and tribute money for permission to sail in Tripolitan waters. (Does all this sound at all familiar?) But year after year he had demanded larger and larger sums until the United States Congress refused to pay. So on May 10, 1801, the Bashaw declared war." (Poor jerk!)

Fighting a lackadaisical war against the Bashaw for a couple of years, the U.S. finally sent a fleet of eight ships to blockade the port of Tripoli. Alas, one of those U.S. ships, the Philadelphia, ran aground off the African shore. After trying -- and failing -- to free her, the Americans scattered, leaving her to the Tripolitans, who "stripped the marines and sailors of their belongings" (I'll bet there's a great story behind that generalization that was never written in detail!) "and took them, half-naked, into the prisons of the town."

"On the night of Feb. 16, 1804," Hunt continues, "an American naval lieutenant named Stephen Decatur of the Constitution (Remember the glorious "Old Ironsides"?) took a volunteer party of sailors and marines aboard a tiny ketch, the Intrepid . . . through the darkness into the harbor of Tripoli . . . and burned the Philadelphia to a crisp, leaving the enraged Bashaw all agog. Why can't our military pull off flamboyant stunts like that any longer? Because it's muscle-bound, that's why.

Nowhere in George P. Hunt's 50-plus year-old description of this dicey state-to-state conflict between the U.S. and the lawless state of Tripoli, in North Africa, in the very early 19th century, is there any clear information about the official role the U.S. government played. Is that because our Founding Fathers gave such sailors as Stephen Decatur and John Paul Jones (one remarkably effective fighter against pirates, indeed!) carte blanche to do as they saw fit?

In today's "piratical situation," in which teenage East African pirates have armament -- Kalishnikovs and "re-loadable pocket-propelled grenade launchers" -- sufficient to repel any size armada; where their youth and apparent imperviousness to harm -- "They were not so bad," cooed a passenger aboard the piraticized Ponant, "Honestly, they were pretty nice pirates" -- give them a bullet-proof protection. So, what's a government do? Maybe the best choice is to let private bounty-hunters (the late Steve McQueen, say!) take over, to assume all the risks and bounties set in front of them.

After all, our own witless federal government, and France's, have already paid these teenage hoodlums more than $10 million to leave their passengers alone, so they (the pirate-besotted girls aboard) can at least have the luxury of writing their best friends back home on shore, all about their exciting vacation, during which they were hijacked by real-live East African pirates, one of whom looked just like Johnny Depp, who had perfect teeth and rippling muscles under their Donald Duck T-shirts. After all, maybe our government figures these guys will eventually grow too old to get up so early and, without at least their T-shirts, risk catching a bad cold that early in the morning! Hey, we can only hope!

I can't help remembering the 1980s Carter administration's plan to have a whole flotilla of marines, soldiers, sailors, mechanics, wood-workers, real estate salesmen, hedge-trimmers, and female impersonators hop a hundred helicopters and fly, under cover of night, sneak into Tehran and emancipate all those American boys who'd been twiddling their thumbs in filthy Iranian jails for a year.

We all know how that episode turned out! Like everything else in America, a good idea is allowed to grow and grow and grow, until, at some point, it begins to get muscle-bound and unwieldy. In Tehran, we had a final image of numberless helicopters rusting unused under a blazing Iranian sun.

We need to learn again to "think small." In our early years, we thought small because, in our infancy, we had to think small. Today, in our emerging empire-thinking, we can no longer think small. We just assume that bigger is better. Wrong!

Some young Washington, D.C., think-tanker must have been paid hefty rolls of big bucks to arrive at the proposition that the best way to discourage these pirates from attacking again and once again is to throw millions of dollars at them!