Sunday, August 14, 2011

To the Shores of Tripoli

Review by Bill Doughty
The War of 1812, in which the young U.S. Navy defeated the British Fleet, was preceded by a war against terrorists -- Barbary pirates and their sponsor states along the northern coast of Africa in and around what is now Libya.
To the Shores of Tripoli -- The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines by A.B.C. Whipple, is the account of the original United States war against Arab tyrants and introduces us to colorful characters such as President Thomas Jefferson, Commodore Edward Preble, Consul William Eaton, Marine Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon and Navy Captain Stephen Decatur.
These main characters are revealed with all of their strengths and weaknesses in the context of political intrigue and, quite literally, personal battles.  The book describes two duels to the death.
Duels occurred frequently in the new U.S. Navy, whose officers were overzealous about rank and “honor.”  Two thirds as many naval officers were killed in duels as by enemy action in all U.S. naval engagements from 1798 until the Civil War.
The greater "duel," of course, was between freedom of the seas and piracy.  Credit is given to Thomas Jefferson for his commitment to end the tradition of paying tribute and ransom to pirates who preyed on American shipping, capturing and imprisoning sailors in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Jefferson saw the dangers of trading arms for hostages.  He lobbied for more and better Navy ships.
Yet, Jefferson was criticized for not waging all out naval war on the pirates and their sponsors and for settling for peace treaties.
According to Whipple:
Such criticism overlooks both Jefferson’s determination to fight rather than pay off the Barbary powers, and the fact that it was Congress that denied his requests to declare war against them.
Naval hero Stephen Decatur fights pirates in Tripoli.
Still, President Jefferson was in office when the first major interaction of the Barbary War occurred 210 years ago this month -- Aug. 1, 1801 -- when Lt. Andrew Sterett led the sloop-of-war Enterprise against the 14-gun warship Tripoli, commanded by Adm. Rais Mahomet Rous, known for raiding American and other commercial shipping.
After Rous pretended surrender and then opened fire on the Enterprise twice, Sterett and his Marines, led by Lt. Enoch Lane, used precision firepower and seafaring prowess to utterly defeat the enemy -- 30 killed, 30 injured out of a crew of 80, with not even one injury to Sterett’s men.
In several examples, the author shows the power of discipline, training and readiness over laziness and political expediency.
The heart of Whipple’s book deals with several key events: the 500-mile march across the desert to Tripoli, a courageous attack on the fort at Derna, sea battles in the Mediterranean and gunboat assaults against pirates and tyrants.
Commodore Preble, mentor to a generation of heroes.
The author shows how the Navy and Marine Corps team developed and became stronger.
He also shows the importance of books in developing leaders.  Eaton was inspired after reading Plutarch’s Lives as a young man.  Preble, a mentor to a generation of U.S. naval heroes, whose flagship was USS Constitution, had more than 100 books in his cabin.

Today, USS Preble (DDG 88) is part of the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Carrier Strike Group.  Preble was one of the first U.S. Navy assets on the scene in Japan last March to provide rescue and relief support as part of Operation Tomodachi in the wake of the tragic earthquake and tsunami there.
After reading and enjoying Whipple’s To the Shores of Tripoli (written twenty years ago in 1991) I checked out Jefferson’s War by Joseph Wheelan (published in 2003), a book which examines the same period and, like Whipple’s work, is carefully researched and documented.
To comprehend the present and future, one should read to understand the past...

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