Lively recounting of the crusade, 200 years ago, that brought the Marines to the shores of Tripoli.
It is a stretch, one that former AP reporter Wheelan strains to make, to equate the American war on the pirate states of the Barbary Coast in Thomas Jefferson’s day with the American war on various terrorist bands and disfavored regimes today; real corsairs do not equal weapons of mass destruction actual or supposed, and profit, not millenarian ideology, drove the Muslim buccaneers of yesteryear. It is less of a stretch to call that war Mr. Jefferson’s, even though American efforts to rid the Mediterranean Sea of those pirates took place over the better part of two decades; it was Jefferson, after all, who remarked of the affair, “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war,” and it was Jefferson who rejected the accommodations of the European states, who paid annual tribute or outright ransom to the Barbary pirates, in favor of grapeshot. Fought on land and sea, the campaign was a curious affair involving more than 2,000 sailors and much of the Atlantic fleet, as well as a motley collection of fighters recruited in the souks of North Africa; as Wheelan observes, “a more diverse army probably never assembled under U.S. auspices. There were Greeks, Italians, Tripolitans, Egyptians, Frenchmen, Arabs, Americans, and British—eleven nationalities in all,” making up a commando unit that crossed overland to invest the pirates’ lair. Wheelan’s account of the skirmishes and major engagements that made up the war is full of whistling shells and falling masts, and his overview of the international politics of the time serves to orient readers to the bigger issues of the day—some of which would present themselves in the War of 1812 and Napoleonic wars that soon followed.
The stuff of good historical fiction—and a treat for military buffs.