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The gold standard for historical accounts
on June 14, 2005
Some people like suspense novels, some people like action adventure stories, and some people are real history buffs. This book will satisfy all three crowds. To find accurate history written in such an engaging, page-turning manner is a rare delight.
The United States became a nation at a time when the Barbary States (Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers) were enjoying a piracy trade they had been running for three centuries. This robbery took place by forcefully taking a ship on the high seas, then keeping the goods and enslaving the crew and passengers. The pirates would hold prisoners for ransom--typically for a year, while they negotiated a price--then release them when paid. No country would stand up to these pirates. In fact, other nations paid tribute to them to avert even worse problems.
This cowardly state of affairs would have continued for centuries more, had not William Eaton headed up a mission to end the reign of one of the bashaws (a bashaw is a sort of king).
This particular bashaw (Yussef) killed his oldest brother, who had been the rightful heir to the throne. Then, he took the middle brother's family hostage and sent him into exile--leaving Yussef the one occupying the throne. The middle brother, Hamet, wanted to regain his throne from his sadistic and unscrupulous younger brother. This is where William Eaton came in.
To understand the central story, you have to understand Eaton. Zacks helps us do this, by showing Eaton engaging in the failures that brought him to the point where his adventure with Hamet began. Eaton had a sound military mind, but he was lousy at politics. He was constantly shooting himself in the proverbial foot, and his enemies took pains to make him suffer.
Eaton's adventure with Hamet is the central story of this book. How that adventure begins, stumbles, picks up, and goes through a multitude of setbacks and political machinations is fascinating. How it ends is disheartening, because that ending shows the triumph of petty politics over common sense.
This book allows the reader to see into historical events and the people behind them. For example:
We see the pompous Tobias Lear--a long-time personal friend of George Washington who damaged that relationship by stealing rent money he was allegedly collecting for Washington--truly bungle negotiations in a way that makes you think of Jimmy Carter. He was that bad.
We see the incompetent Captain William Bainbridge surrender the USS Philadelphia, when there was no reason to do so. This act of stupidity wasn't his first surrender. But, this one got his whole crew enslaved (and some killed) and tortured for over a year. Officers, of course, were pampered by their hosts (only the enlisted men were barbarized). Amazingly, the Navy gave him command of yet another ship. I guess three's a charm?
We see Thomas Jefferson get an object lesson in why a gunboat navy doesn't work and why a navy needs massive ships. Jefferson was a complex character and a skillful political manipulator. Zacks shows the man at his scheming best, while also reminding us of Jefferson's many significant contributions. A balanced portrayal like this rarely occurs in accounts of major historical figures.
Today, we think of the US Marines as an elite force--the few and the proud. They are often the first into battle. But at the start of Eaton's adventure, they were not highly thought of. Their pay was less than that of a regular sailor, and their main job was to serve as a sort of police force for the ship they were assigned to.
But Eaton took a force of Marines into battle and made history. Eaton's Marines did what Marines have done ever since--the impossible.
Throughout this book, you can't help but share Eaton's sense of frustration as he faces one obstacle after another. Because the dialogue and narration are so alive, you experience his joys, his anger, his pride, and his worry. Zacks does an excellent job of bringing those emotions forth. But Zack stays true to history and doesn't let our view of Eaton be one-sided. He also shows, throughout the book, how Eaton's various weaknesses work against him. One weakness is his inability to stay out of debt. Another is his inability to garner mutual respect with those in authority over him.
But the weakness that does him in is his inability to let go. Eaton's mission ends, his obsession with Lear's incompetent bungling and Jefferson's complicity in undermining Eaton's mission gnaw at him. He lets his unhappiness drive him to drink. And in 1811, he finally drinks himself into his grave at the age of 47. Five years later, Tobias Lear--Eaton's most hated enemy--takes his own life.
Eaton's mission was the first covert operation conducted overseas by the United States. He did not accomplish what he set out to do, because of undermining from other people--most notably Lear and Jefferson. But in the year following Eaton's death, Stephen Decatur, Jr., commanded a Naval force that proceed to kick a-- and gravely weaken the pirate nations.
Decatur's actions stopped the Barbary Pirates from attacking US ships. But, those actions also emboldened other victim nations to fight back.
In 1829, two French brigates ran aground in the harbor in Algiers. The Dey (ruler) of Algiers had 109 officers and crew members beheaded. That action resulted in a massive French force descending upon Algiers. The French forced a surrender in three weeks, and took complete control of the country. France did not grant independence to Algiers until 1962, which is why French is a common language in Algiers even today.
The French also took control of Tunis in 1881, granting them independence in 1956. Tripoli did not come out of this unscathed. We are all familiar with this portion of The Marine Hymn: "From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli." Read this book to find out why US Marines still sing those words today. Or, read it simply for the pleasure of reading a good book.