Military Matters: Lessons from Decatur

By WILLIAM S. LIND  |  Aug. 3, 2007 at 12:48 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- Americans who know any history -- there may be a couple dozen left -- are all familiar with America's first Mideast war, that against Tripoli under President Thomas Jefferson. Far less well known is the U.S. war with Algiers in 1815. A nicely written new book, "The End of Barbary Terror" 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, the United States 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 that successful Mideast war offer any lessons for our own time? In the face of the all-too-often wretched U.S. 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. The United States had, of course, a young Navy, but five captains were senior to Decatur. The secretary of the Navy, Benjamin W. Crowninshield, and President James 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.

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 60 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 the service ... "

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 into operation."

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 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 Muslim "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 Osama bin Laden 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 Muslims alike. No one outside their ranks gave a fig what happened to them.

With essentially no base beyond their racket, the rulers of Algiers were easy pickings. Take a frigate and a brig, and they had to deal. Bin Laden, 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.


(William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.)

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