America’s First War With Islam

Thomas Jefferson Tripoli PiratesBrain Kilmeade, of Fox News, working with Don Yaeger who receives co-author credit in a much smaller font and may be responsible for the large number of primary sources listed in the Notes, wrote this book about America’s first war as a nation to feature the “relatively unknown, unsung patriots” who fought and died to makes our famous founding fathers’ vision come true.

I’m glad I picked up the book and will, therefore, forgive him for using one of the most famous of those founding fathers in the title: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, the Forgotten War that Changed American History.

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli…
Hymn of the US Marines

Around 1800, Tripoli (known today as Libya) was the most aggressive of the nations on the North African Barbary Coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and part of Egypt, nations beholden to the Ottoman Empire. These nations, each with its own an absolute ruler, controlled the Mediterranean Sea and extended their reach into the Atlantic Ocean. They extorted protection money from nations trading in the Mediterranean, and mostly received whatever they demanded, even from powerful nations like Britain and France (which persisted in fighting each other through the period.) Ships not under the rulers’ protection were routinely captured by “pirates” working for these nations, their crews enslaved, and vast ransoms demanded. It was “a centuries-old practice of building economies around kidnappings, theft, and terror.”

US ships were easy targets
The newly formed United States, untried in the region, found “its status was lowly indeed,” but needed the economic boost from trade. At first, the US paid “tribute” like other nations did, but didn’t have the credit-rating to raise the increasing sums demanded and was still deep in debt from the Revolution. Eventually, the US fought the Barbary nations – especially Tripoli – and won the right to free passage in international waters.

I chose to title this review as a war with Islam, which is a bit hyperbolic.

  • At one point a Tripoli diplomat explained that “all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”
  • Later, however, when America supported an exiled prince against his brother who ruled Tripoli (regime change as a tactic is not new) the US emissary “touched upon the affinity of principle between the Islam and American religion. Both taught the existence…of one God… both enjoyed the universal exercise of humanity, and both forbade unnecessary bloodshed… the viceroy had to agree: indeed these were the maxims of his faith.”

Forgive my cynicism, but those seeking wealth and power seem to use religion when it suits their purpose.

Politics are always confusing
War was declared by Tripoli but, oddly enough, not reciprocated by the US. Two years later Congress passed a law authorizing Jefferson to protect and ensure American commerce, but didn’t declare war. The whole conflict went this way – with factions in the US at odds, and individual US captains and diplomats undercutting each other in the battle theater. It’s not surprising the thing dragged on for years, but rather that we ever won.

In the end there was humiliation, betrayal, anger, and disappointment for the US, but also victory. We emerged with a standing navy and worldwide respect. After the War of 1812 between America and Britain, an American captain freeing American slaves in Tripoli included British sailors in his efforts, despite the recent war. “It was a bold, unprecedented move that was celebrated across Europe” and made me proud. That’s an American efforts I want to remember.

The US suffered both defeats and victories, and since the details were new to me, reading about various battles and incidents was nail-biting.

I also learned several things:

  • Due to the terrible communications, taking many months back and forth across the Atlantic, Americans were generally on their own. This led to both terrible and excellent decisions.
  • Despite everyone whining about honor, deceit was used by all. After the first couple times a ship flying a friendly flag turned out to be the enemy, I’d think you’d quite complaining they weren’t playing fair and just deal with it.
  • When using a fake flag to come close to the enemy, attacking ships would take the time to raise their own flag as they attacked. All sides did this. I wonder, why bother?
  • Being a slave was really, really horrible.

If there’s one quibble I have with the book, it’s that motivations are not always explored. George Washington, for example, initially resisted building a navy, but later when Congress backed off during a lull, he kept shipbuilding going. I wonder why?

Since Kilmeade’s stated goal is to focus on the action in the Mediterranean, I guess I can’t complain.

I enjoyed the book
This is an interesting book on a war I knew little about. It is also a nice companion to House of Wisdom which covers the earlier golden age of Islamic science and innovation.

I don’t think it offers much insight into our current “war” with Islamic extremists. ISIS strikes me as more cult-like than any of the Barbary Coast pirate nations.

What others are saying
The book gets 4.5 stars on Amazon with 225 reviews – I’d call that “acclaimed.” I think some reviewers overestimate how much insight it offers to our current troubles with terrorism, but many reviewers (like me) knew nothing about America’s first war and enjoyed learning. Reviewers giving less praise thought too many pages were given to detailing the battles and incidents, “lightweight afternoon adventure,” wanted more on Jefferson’s views of Islam, or thought it was too short to justify the price.

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