Top critical review
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Deserves a read
on November 1, 2003
The major reason to read this book is that there simply aren't enough books that try to give a reasonably comprehensive history of the the Tripolitan War and US policy at the time. A lot of books focusing on the war are more concerned with the naval history, and "the birth of the US Navy." That is all well and good, but the politics, policy, and financial aspects of the war deserve a lot of attention in a single volume as well as the remarkable achievements of the young Navy in the Mediterranean. Important lessons can be drawn from our experience and applied today.
However, the subtitle: "America's First War on Terror" is hyperbolic. This is understandable, though, since it will augment the book's sale, and there is nothing wrong with a book out there on this topic that is accessible to us laymen. Also, the heavy use of "The Terror" in the early chapters in referring to the piracy gets a little worn. On the other hand, Roger Albin's vituperative response to the book is totally over the top, since author Wheelan barely discusses September 11 in the preface, and nowhere in the text (see the index). It is left to the reader to draw direct (or indirect) parallels. The Barbary states weren't terrorists as we understand them today. Tactics of terror were used by these mercenary states, as were "liberal" justifications of their piracy through Koranic verse, but we should be careful about blurring those vile and venal potentates with the far more sophisticated and apocalyptic terrorists of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's global political vision is far scarier, far more dangerous, and warrants a far more unrelenting and thorough destruction than the Barbary states did.
However, important lessons can be gained from studying this early naval war: (1) It was an expeditionary war that depended on mobility, improvisation, and unorthodox tactics; (2) Some enemies cannot be engaged with dialogue, or speech as we know it, but only through force and violence; (3) American domestic politics (Congress particularly) heavily favors half-measures and mediocre solutions while allowing domestic partisan fights to obscure our understanding of the enemy; and, (4) A confused domestic response undermined the country's diplomatic capital, allowing opponents to infer weakness and exploit us, compromising the military response.
Also, the inexplicable silliness of the Navy's first cruise in the Med should also be a major lesson about keeping objectives clear and firmly in mind.
Currently, those weaknesses are highly instructive, and not as some sort of validation of current policies. Addressing them reduces the country's vulnerability, and allows us to exercise power abroad more coherently and more successfully. We can also draw lessons from the great strength's of this war via this book, which were the personalities of its heroes. William Eaton, with his brazeness, creativity, and unrelenting spirit, is a great example of the American creatively making the best out of a confusing situation with the limited resources he's been allowed. For all of his often sad flaws, he should be studied by everyone.
I think JEFFERSON'S WAR merits three-and-a-half stars, mainly from the uninspiring writing, and a tendency towards a style that favors really breathless and overwritten narrative. What I really like about this book, though, is he gives a succinct, yet accurate history of the Barbary states' relations to Europe up to Tripoli's war with America, which I think is really important. Europe was tolerating the piracy in the Mediterannean for hundreds of years, so claiming that the Napoleonic Wars explains the lack of European puissance is inadequate to say the least.
Also, you will see from reading excerpts of Adams', Jefferson's, and Eaton's, letters 'et al' that the pride and dignity of a young nation being extorted by pirates was just as important to them as was its economic health; both of which were explicitly being fought for with Jefferson's policies and the US Navy's actions, and both of which are thoroughly explored in Wheelan's text, any reviewers' arguments about Wheelan's "implications" to the contrary.
A more rigorous, and I think an equally readable book, is Michael Kitzen's TRIPOLI AND THE UNITED STATES AT WAR, which is sadly out of print. It's primarily based on U.S. documents, and does a great job with William Eaton's letters.