Final Thoughts on Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History (by Bethany)

TJ and the Tripoli pirates cover image

Once I was in a strip joint and needed to go to the bathroom. The thing is, strip joints don’t have women’s bathrooms – or this one didn’t, anyway. When I asked a staff member, he pointed me toward the strippers’ locker room. When I went inside, several strippers said hello and nodded when I asked to use the toilet, which was just sitting there in the corner of the room – not in a stall or behind a screen or anything. A minute or so later, I looked around for toilet paper and couldn’t find any. I called out to the strippers and asked if they knew where I could find toilet paper. “There isn’t any,” they said.

One of the things that happen when you’re a woman at a strip joint (I learned that night) is that strangers buy you lapdances. The first time this happened to me was just a little while after I used the bathroom in the strippers’ locker room. My first instinct was to refuse the strange men’s “gift,” but I relented because I knew that someday I would be reviewing a work of right-wing American history propaganda for my blog and would need an amusing analogy I would come home with a better story if I accepted the lapdance than if I turned it down. But I hadn’t been on the stage long when I made the connection between the lack of toilet paper in the strippers’ bathroom and the very-lightly-covered pubic area that was gyrating around a couple of inches from my nose –

And THAT is how dirty I felt when I was reading Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History. And also how dirty I felt when I saw one of its authors named, if only tangentially, in this story.

I know that the Barbary Wars aren’t at the top of the list of topics covered in American history classes, so I’ll summarize a bit. In the 18th century it was generally known that the Muslim states west of Egypt in North Africa (now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya; then Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli) filled their coffers by sending some of their sea vessels to stop, board, and rob foreign vessels in the Mediterranean, often also kidnapping everyone on board and taking them back to Africa as slaves. Most European powers that regularly sailed in the Mediterranean made payments to the rulers of these nations in exchange for protection from these attacks. In the first few years after the American Revolution, the United States desperately needed money and needed to build trade relationships with as many European countries as possible, both to build up its treasury and to prove to Europe that it was capable of standing alone as a nation. During these years (and earlier, during the Revolutionary War itself), many American ships were boarded and robbed by the Barbary pirates, and many American sailors were enslaved. As ambassador to France during the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson tried to negotiate with the Barbary states for the release of the American captives, but the rulers of these nations demanded exorbitant amounts of money as ransom. Jefferson and others in the new American government also frowned upon the idea of paying ransom and/or paying, as France and England did, for immunity in Barbary waters, since nothing stopped the pirates from reneging on their promises and demanding more money in the future. Jefferson and others wanted to step boldly onto the world stage, beat the pirates at their own game, and prove once and for all that one does not mess with the United States of America.

I’d say more, but I think you know the story from here. Or if you don’t, you can find it in a Toby Keith song.

I love reading about military history, and I did enjoy parts of this book. I don’t have any reason to quibble with the facts as these authors present them. But this book just drips with propaganda. The purpose of this book is clearly to rewrite our nation’s creation mythology so that an enmity with treacherous, deceitful Muslims is at its core. The Barbary pirates were treacherous and deceitful, sure, but they were pirates. All pirates are treacherous and deceitful. The rulers of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli egged the pirates on because they liked the kickbacks they received – this is hardly admirable, but it was 1804. Up in Jefferson’s beloved France around this time, Marie Antoinette was squeezing herself into a corset made from the ribs of peasants, who were not allowed to stop working long hours in His Majesty’s vineyards while their ribs were being removed with a couple of sharpened fondue forks. OK, I made the last part up – but you get the idea: no one had the moral high ground in 1804. There was no such thing. There may not be any such thing today either, though I hear good things about the Scandinavian health care system.

I said a lot in my first review about why this book made me feel dirty, and all of those general statements are still true. After two hundred pages of hinting, the book finally makes clear its larger purpose a few pages from the end: “Most important, here in the twenty-first century, the broader story – the great confrontation between the United States and militant Islamic states – has a new significance” (203). These authors are determined to cast Muslims as “the other.” Of course the pirates who raided foreign ships were bad, as were the sultans, deys, and other rulers who egged them on. Jefferson was right to fight them off, and a lot of good came out of his decision to do so, above and beyond simply freeing the American prisoners and allowing American ships safe passage in the Mediterranean. The Marine Corps, with its unique combination of land and sea power (air came later) and special-forces style fighting in small teams, was essentially created to fight against the Barbary pirates – and the Marines have certainly proved themselves useful in subsequent conflicts. The U.S. Navy grew exponentially as a result of this war; the authors state that there is no way the U.S. could have defeated the British in the War of 1812 if it had not built up its navy for this war a decade earlier, and I have no doubt that is true. I also find as I review the book that a lot of the language that irritated me about it on first read actually comes from quotations from the key players in the conflict – and as late 18th-century and early-19th century personages they get a little bit of a free pass. William Eaton, the general who eventually led an armed insurgency with the goal of Reagan-in-Latin-America, Bush-in-Iraq “regime change” in Tripoli, is the culprit behind many of the most offensive statements, the worst of which is his tendency to use “Americans” and “Christians” as synonyms. I do wish Kilmeade and Yaeger had done more to distance themselves from these statements, but I can’t fault them for quoting them. Their statement that “Pope Pius VII reportedly said Decatur had done more for Christianity in an hour than the nations of Christendom ever had” (202) is a little silly (N.B. Decatur set a boat on fire) – or, more correctly, Pope Pius VII was a little silly for (reportedly) saying it, and these authors were more than a little silly for quoting it. The same authors repeatedly worked the word “Benghazi” into their text as a little dog whistle to their right-wing readers; absolutely nothing happens in Benghazi that contributes to the history related in the book.

During a rough patch in the war, Commander Edward Preble thought of a cunning way to fight back against the Tripolitans, who at that point were fighting more from land than from sea. He took a captured Tripolitan ship (renamed the Intrepid by the Americans), and packed it with gunpowder and metal (“one hundred thirteen-inch and fifty-nine-inch shells, together with iron scraps and pig iron ballast” [166]). The authors call this contraption “a floating bomb”; my own mind immediately pictured the pressure-cooker bomb the Tsarnaev brothers used to bomb the Boston Marathon.

Both of these improvised explosive devices – the ship and the pressure cooker, both equipped with explosives and shrapnel-to-be – were capable of inflicting terrible damage. Both also represent superior ingenuity, creativity, and courage. According to Kilmeade and Yaeger, the captain of the rigged ship, Richard Somers, “asked that no volunteer accompany him who would not be willing, in the event the enemy should board the Intrepid, to ‘put a match to the magazine and blow themselves and their enemies up together” (166).

Yes, that’s right – Somers asked his men to volunteer to be suicide bombers, and they agreed. Over and over and over again we hear suicide bombing condemned, always with the suggestion that it’s something only “enemies” do, from the kamikazes in World War II to the insurgents in Iraq today. As a reader myself, I loved reading about this maneuver, which I saw as a variation on the Trojan Horse scheme from the Iliad, but I hated the double standard that I knew to be at its core. As it happened, the Intrepid blew up before it ever entered Tripoli harbor; its captain and crew were killed and the mission was a failure. No one knew what set the explosives off – a sniper’s bullet, a stray spark – but the fact remains that all the men on the ship died without harming the enemy. This is disappointing, of course, but the failure of the mission makes it all the more ridiculous that these authors are lionizing American sailors with their pens and at the same time going to work at Fox News and declaring our country to be innately superior to others (these “others” aren’t always named, but you’d better believe they’re Muslim countries) because we do not engage in suicide bombing. For one thing, we don’t engage in suicide bombing because we have really, really big jets and bombs and tanks. Suicide bombing is a technique used by underdogs who don’t have massive ordnance – and it works. Just look at our frustrations in Iraq to see how well it works.

We have a strong, vigilant military, and I am grateful for the safe life I have lived as a result. But we have to get rid of the idea that our military is any more moral than the armies, navies, and insurgent mobs of other countries. We use surgical drone strikes, tiny teams of Navy SEAL’s, and massively destructive air campaigns not because these techniques emerge from our core values but because we have the strongest military force in the world and these are the sort of techniques that powerful countries have at their disposal. If were a true underdog in a fight, we would build pressure-cooker IED’s in our kitchens and strike fear into enemy civilians too – and then we would applaud ourselves and find a way to stretch and shape our core values until they began to justify our actions. No technique is “good” when we do it and “bad” when our enemies do it – morality doesn’t work like that. This book – which, as I said, is often a good read – is written at a fifth-grade level not only in terms of its sentence structure and word choice but also in terms of its moral compass. Adults who read books (and watch movies, and so forth) like this one and don’t recognize this fractured thinking are dangerous. They’re a different kind of suicide bomber.

This really isn’t the review I meant to write. I wanted to stay close to the text and break apart the sentences that bothered me in this book, maybe even throwing in some terms like “ad hominem fallacy” or some such. I ended up writing in fairly general terms, even as I critiqued the authors for doing the same. I may try to return to this book or read another by this duo (they also wrote a book together on George Washington’s spy ring in the Revolutionary War) or by a historian with a similar perspective. If I do, I’ll let you know.

This entry was posted in Authors, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - Cringeworthy Propaganda, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Military, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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