January 10, 2006

Author avoids comparisons between past and present wars

Just how far back does the American war on terror date?

All the way to America’s founding, when North African pirates plundered U.S. merchant ships under the banner of Islam, according to a new book, Victory In Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation.

Written by Joshua E. London (A.M. ’98) and published in August, the book details the build-up to the war, which ran from 1801 to 1805, showing how North African leaders encouraged piracy of American merchant ships.

Victory focuses on post-Revolution American politics, recounting how the mounting pirate attacks convinced the U.S. of the need to create and deploy an iron-fisted navy.

The historical connection to America’s contemporary war on terror is implicit. But London refrains from including any explicit comparison to American foreign policy today.

London, of Washington, D.C., who has worked as a speechwriter and freelance journalist, spent three years researching and writing the book, including a trip to Tunisia and several U.S. archives.

London says he kept explicit parallels out of the book for good reason. “I wanted to let the reader make up his or her own mind,” he said. “Too many history books try to prove a point about contemporary society—they don’t leave any room for the reader to think for themselves.”

In this sense, Victory provides a portrait of how U.S.-Islamic relations have changed in the past 200 years.

Mollified by bribes from Europe, the North African pirates refrained from attacking U.S. ships until after America declared independence and lost its umbrella protection from England. Describing the Tripoli War as necessary, London said the need to militarily defend Mediterranean commerce was essential for America’s fledgling economy. In the current war on terror, by contrast, America is working to defend against attacks on its home soil.

A similarity between wars is that both were sprung on an unprepared U.S., London said. “In Iraq, mistakes that were made were mistakes of warfare. You have to adjust to your enemy; you can’t go by what bureaucrats have on paper,” he said. “And that’s what happened with the pirates. We thought we would send some ships in, flex our muscles, and everything would be fine. It didn’t turn out that simply.”

An aspect of the Islamic world that hasn’t changed is the importance of religion and tribalism, London said. “We are used to thinking of things in a different way—religion doesn’t mean the same to us as it means to them,” London said. “That’s something we ignore at our peril.”

The Tripoli War showed that pirates would break a treaty with the U.S. whenever they could find reason, London said, adding that the only way to enforce treaties was by brute force.

“Our lesson in the Middle East is that the moment we’re not prepared for war, there’s no peace,” said London, who supports a permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East. “We either have to be there militarily or get out—and I don’t mean just get our troops out, but forget about all of our interests in the region.”

The Tripoli War was the first time the U.S. used regime change to alter global politics, London said, adding that U.S. policy in the Middle East has included colonization and “our version of oil for fraud” since then. “We have a confused and involved history in the Middle East,” London said.