Americans who know any history – there may be
a couple of dozen left – are all familiar with America's first Mideast war,
that against Tripoli under President Jefferson. Far less well known is our war
with Algiers in 1815. A nicely-written new book, The
End of Barbary Terror (well, for a while, anyway) by Frederick C.
Leiner fills the gap.
The most surprising aspect of this splendid little war – there were such things,
once – is that the United States was able to wage it. In 1815 we had just gotten
our pants pretty well kicked by the Brits, Washington was in ruins and the Treasury
was empty. Nonetheless, in response to the seizure of one small trading vessel
by Algiers, we declared war and dispatched not one but two powerful naval squadrons
to the Mediterranean.
It turned out that the first squadron of three frigates, one sloop of war,
four brigs and two schooners, under the command of one of America's most brilliant
naval commanders of all time, Stephen Decatur, was enough to do the job. Despite
their fearsome reputation, the Algerine warships proved to be sitting ducks.
Decatur quickly took two of them, including the best of the lot, the frigate
Meshuda, whose crew fled below and hid in the hold after two broadsides.
In a preview of Arab state militaries of today, one U.S. officer "expressed
amazement that the Algerine navy was ‘a mere burlesque’ with ‘miserably contrived'
equipment, poor gunnery and poorly disciplined crews." (In fairness, it should
be noted that the shore defenses of Algiers were formidable and well-manned.)
After its initial defeats at sea, Algiers quickly came to terms.
Beyond the doubtful quality of Arab navies, does our last successful Mideast
war offer any lessons for our own time? In the face of our all-too-often wretched
generalship in today's Mideast wars – perhaps now improving in Iraq, still
rock-bottom in Afghanistan – Decatur’s example certainly recommends itself.
But behind what Decatur did stands something more: the selection of Decatur
as commander of the first squadron.
Then as now, seniority played a great role in selecting men for top commands.
Decatur was 36 years old in 1815. We had, of course, a young navy, but five
captains were senior to Decatur. The Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin W. Crowninshield,
and President Madison, should, had they played the game as the system intended,
have chosen someone more senior. They might have selected, for example, the
most senior officer in the Navy, Alexander Murray. Mr. Leiner writes,
"When he had last served in the Mediterranean a dozen years before,
William Eaton, the United States consul at Tunis, had sneered that the United
States 'might as well send out Quaker meeting houses to float about the sea,
as frigates with Murray in command.' Murray was sixty years old in 1815, nearly
deaf, and described by Commodore Rogers as 'an amiable old gentleman…(whose)
pretensions…as a navy officer are of a very limited description.'"
Or, they might have chosen Hugh Campbell, tellingly known as "Old Cork" in
"Commodore Rodgers devastatingly described him as 'a good old gentleman,
but…an enemy to everything that is likely to call the reflections of his mind
Any resemblance between such figures and senior American military leaders today
must remain conjectural. It is historical fact, however, that Madison and Crowninshield
cut through the system to find a leader in his mid-30s, rather than his 50s
or 60s. It is perhaps as much to Crowninshield as to Decatur that we should
look for a lesson for our own times.
A larger question at which Mr. Leiner is too good a historian to more than
hint – and then perhaps at the desire of his publisher – is whether Decatur's
slam-bam approach to dealing with Moslem "terrorists" tells us anything. Could
a similar way of dealing avail us more today than the de-escalation Fourth Generation
theorists usually recommend?
Here we quickly see the difference between yesterday’s terrorists and today's.
If there is one thing Old Osama has, it is legitimacy. The heads of government
of Algiers and the other Barbary states, in contrast, had none. While nominal
vassals of the Ottoman Sultan, they were in fact nothing more than gang leaders.
They were chosen, kept in power and regularly removed from power and from the
ranks of the living by small bands of Janissaries, who in turn ran the Barbary
states. Those Janissaries were terrorists to Christian seamen and local Moslems
alike. No one outside their ranks gave a fig what happened to them.
With essentially no base beyond their racket, Deys of Algiers were easy pickings.
Take a frigate and a brig, and they had to deal. Osama, in vast contrast, has
a base that numbers in the tens or hundreds of millions of people, in Algiers,
Tunis and Tripoli, but equally in the suburbs of Paris, in Birmingham and in
Detroit. It will take more than a squadron of frigates, or our whole Navy of
iron ships and wooden men, to squeeze a deal out of him.