Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Jeffersons War (CL)
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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.
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on January 15, 2007
This book competently highlights "America's first global war on terror." It is the fascinating story of America's early interaction and conflict with the Barbary states in North Africa. It is a complex story that contains the whole range of diplomacy and war; courage and cowardice; brilliance and incompetence. A brief synopsis of the events covered can be found in the publisher's blurb above, and need not be repeated here. This review will serve mainly to highlight strengths and weakness of the work. The author tells the story very well but perhaps with a few too many tangents and largely irrelevant details and stories as well as the rather annoying habit of making somewhat forced comparisons between the situation at the start of the 1800s and today.

First the author has a lovely narrative flow that is perhaps necessarily hindered by a superabundance of names and places. This may well be the nature of the beast as there were four Barbary States, each with its own Deii, Bey, Pasha, Sultan, or Emperor let alone the other regional powers which will include many that the layman may find unfamiliar. Unless you have previously studied the Napoleonic Mediterranean, you may find it useful to keep a small cheat-sheet on your bookmark and a small map handy. However, this is not a serious hindrance to the serious reader.

More annoying is the author's tendency to "period hop." That is to say that he has decided to structure his work only in the most loose chronological format. Mostly he wants to follow people and places. At times this makes for a disjointed narrative. Additionally, and perhaps because of this, he also has a tendency to repeat himself. At times one can be grateful for the reminder, while at others it is annoying and slightly insulting.

Another problem with the narrative is the author's desire to tell you EVERYTHING about many of the main players. For example, in tracking the unhappy life of a US Marine officer after the events at the heart of the book he consumes a surprising number of pages when most readers would be satisfied with a simple "he became increasingly embittered and died in near disgrace." A fair bit of judicial "skimming" is indicated here.

The final issue I have with this generally good book is the Author's desire to make comparisons to the current Global War on Terror. In many cases, the comparisons are worthy and real, however, in the vast majority they are either: 1) Obvious, eliciting a "Duhhh, I could see that myself before the blinding flash of the obvious" response; 2) needling and insignificant or 3) rather forced. In a well written history, the comparisons to modern times should be self evident to the reasonably educated reader. Pointing them out seems akin to having to explain the punch line of a joke, either unnecessary or simply pointing out the inadequacy of the joke.

All that said, these are relatively minor criticisms of a well researched book. It is a very comprehensive coverage of America's first major foreign adventure and first war against an Islamic power. This is probably one of the three books I would recommend for anyone making a study of the Early US Navy and foreign policy. The other two, FYI are Barbara Tuchman's "The First Salute" and a book of the first few naval wars in American History entitled "Six Frigates".

Jefferson's War is a comprehensive and interesting account full of detail (although sometimes too much detail) of America's first "war on terror" from the halls of Washington to the Shores of Tripoli.
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on October 15, 2005
Wheelan is a journalist who has written a "popular" history of the US war against the Barbary Pirates in the early 19th century. It is a straightforward, non-Academic narrative history that provides context and describes the war against, primarily, Tripoli. He points out that after the Europeans had spent hundreds of years bribing and placating these north African Muslims, the US refused to play the game. At first, due to a lack of resources and the fact that the US was a confederation with a powerless central government, it had to pay tribute. However, after the central government was given the right to levy taxes, one of the first things it did was raise a Navy, and the primary threat was the Barbary Coast. One of Jefferson's first actions as president was to send the Navy in harms way. Although the first two Navy commanders were too timid for the mission, Preeble put teeth to the threat. Later, an overland expedition led by former Army officer William Eaton drove Tripoli to sue for peace. Of note are the similarities between the way today's Islamic terrorists behave when compared to the Islamic pirates of the time.
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on January 12, 2005
I really enjoyed reading this book. As a break from the Aubrey/Maturin novels, it was nice to read a fast paced, straight forward non-fiction account.

Wheelan gives a fine researched account of the Barbary Wars from a Military, economic and Political point of view. However, this book reads like a novel and is very fast paced. Although my primary interest is military history, I was more intruiged with the economic and political aspects of the conflict as seen from a 200 year old perspective.

The cast of characters is very interesting(with a list in the intro)as Wheelan goes into some depth to give background information on all the major players in this war. I think the book really shines and it shows in many examples how politics can otherwise ruin the best laid military plans especially with the overland expedition to Tripoli.

As for the parallel with today's conflicts, I feel they are very evident. Wheelan hits on the psycology of the Muslim mind very well, and if one looks at today's breed of terrorist, there are many similarities-unfortunately today, they are much more vicious.

The only thing I would have wished is that he could have included more illustrations. Definaltely a must read for all naval history buffs and those who love naval fiction as well.
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VINE VOICEon June 25, 2004
Joseph Wheelan has put together a comfortably readable narrative history of the United States involvement with the Barbary Corsairs. He has provided a modest amount of background to set the stage for the actual events centered around the period from 1801-1812. His history ranges from the American capital to the shores of Tripoli, dealing with politicians, diplomats and military officers.
Much of the story focuses on the events that transpired in the Mediterranean Sea, remote from the direction of the politicians in the United States. Memorable names like Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull and David Porter feature prominently. While they may not have been Nelson's 'band of brothers', they were the core of the United States navy that, along with it's new super frigates (Constitution, President and United States), stood toe to toe with the British fleet during the War of 1812.
Wheelan's history does not fail to cover William Eaton's cross desert march that brought the conflict to the Barbary shores in earnest. With due credit given to Presley O'Bannon, lieutenant in the fledgling United States Marines.
The one complaint I have of the book is that the author insists on trying to make some tenuous connection between the war with the Barbary Corsairs and the United States current 'War on Terror'. The only real similarity between the corsairs and the current terrorists is that they both involve the regions of North Africa and Middle East. Fortunately, he gives up the effort within the first 100 pages and gets on with the narrative.
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on June 22, 2004
The Tripolitan War recieves little coverage in U.S. History Survey courses, and that's a shame, because it was in this war that the likes of Stephen Decatur cut his teeth in preparation for the to Rev War II in 1812. It is also the first time a U.S. soldier died in a foreign land, and the first time the U.S. stood up to a bunch of punk bullies fat off of European coddling who deserved to get their butts spanked. The first attempted "regime change", the first "special op" war w/ native foot soldiers, and sadly, the first time the U.S. backed out of a committment to a foreign ally. Quite like today.
There is a lot of good information in this book, not just a fairly detailed account of the Tripolitan War, but soft cinematic character studies of the major characters (Eaton, Decatur, Jefferson, the Bey), impressive "camoes" by the likes of Lord Nelson, and a nice ethnography of the Northern African character following the Spanish reconqest of Iberia. It is an enjoyable read as well, and quite possibly a page turner to him who knows little about the era and is not quite sure how the "story" ends. A more enjoyable read than most fiction, and educational. What more can you ask?
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on May 9, 2005
No long-winded review, just praise for a book I enjoyed. The author illuminated a part of American history I knew little about and I'm pleased I read the book and learned from it. I recommend it.
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on December 6, 2005
Joseph Wheelan tackles the story of America fighting (occasionally) a war in the early 19th Century against Tripoli for its habit of attacking U.S. shipping in the Mediterranean, taking the ships for its own, and making slaves out of the crews - your basic piracy.

The writing itself is fairly average, but the book is worth reading for a couple of reasons. First, it's fascinating to focus in on a time when the U.S. was not the biggest kid on the block and didn't have its military house in order. Two thirds of the time, there was little to nothing you could point to with pride as an American. Three of the four U.S. Naval commanders over the course of the war seemed to take the assignment more as an Italian holiday than as a war.

Second, it's wonderful to learn about the individuals who did step up and begin to form the framework of a Navy that would hold its own quite admirably just a few years later against the British Navy in the War of 1812. The historic gems in the book are great, too. The 14 towns of Decatur in the U.S. are named after a naval hero from this war and the first ever U.S. military force to land on foreign soil did so in this war (Shores of Tripoli ring any bells?).

Overall, this one is worth a read for any fan of history.
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on July 28, 2013
I had to read this for a required part of training in the US Navy. It was a fantastic read and I learned a lot about things that seem to be part of what caused tensions in the middle east. Read it for insight, even if you're not in the Navy or the military.
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This is a wonderful fresh new look. In 1801 Jefferson dispatched the newly created U.S Navy to deal with the state-sponsored piracy of the Barbary states, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco. This book paints Jefferson as a President willing to extent American values and principles overseas by fighting America's `first war on terror'. Although this language is slightly clichéd and not entirely accurate in the 19th century sense, nevertheless the book gives a resounding argument behind why terror and unlawfulness must be punished and that appeasement never works in the face of unfettered aggression.
Probably the most interesting aspect of this war was that the fledgling America was willing to go all the way across an ocean under the vary eyes of the Europeans America had rebelled against, to fight a nameless enemy only to protect American merchant interests. In many ways this was a forward thinking war. Smacking of Palmerstons later `gunboat diplomacy' this war against the Tripoli showed how a newly formed idealistic republic was willing to go around the globe to protect is citizens from barbarism. A wonderful read, the authors style is quick and witty, and the writing is lucid and action packed. Any student of American history will enjoy this new take on Jefferson and the young American navy just as anyone interested in today's war on terror will enjoy its 19th century antecedents.
Seth J. Frantzman
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