There is a dusty corner of a graveyard in oft-besieged Tripoli that is American soil, made so only the way the dead do. Eight American sailors lie there. Five others are buried in the little, white-walled Protestant cemetery a mile away. All were members of a daring raid during the First Barbary War against the pirate realm of a pasha long accustomed to collecting ransom from British and French ships who dared sail within his reach. But the still young American republic would prove different.
As the pasha's extortionate demands increased, so did American resistance. These 13 sailors were among the early casualties of the war that would result; they were all part of a raiding party launched against the pasha's stronghold. Our contemporary SEALs are not the first Navy outfit determined to avenge American honor.
Here was the mission impossible in September of 1804: Blow up the fortress in Tripoli harbor. But the raiders never made it to their target. Spotted at sea, their little ketch loaded with deadly explosives would be hit -- and none would survive. When the bodies washed ashore, the pasha fed them to the dogs; what remained was dumped into a mass grave. There they lie, waiting to be brought home. And they will be. The time for that is fast approaching, like the end of Moammar Gadhafi's bloody reign. The names change; the pashas don't.
Much like the conflict formerly known as the War on Terror -- what is it now, Overseas Contingency Operations? -- the war against the Barbary pirates was full of triumph and tragedy, stunning victories and demoralizing reverses.
The most celebrated American feat of the war was a young naval lieutenant's managing to sink the captured USS Philadelphia, which had been moored in Tripoli's well-fortified harbor. Lt. Stephen Decatur's crew snuck into the harbor and burned the pirates' prize to the waterline, then escaped without losing a man. Britain's Horatio Lord Nelson, the British admiral who was no stranger to naval exploits himself, called it "the most bold and daring act of the age."
The pasha still needed to be dealt with in decisive terms, but a new and indecisive American administration wouldn't undertake anything so bold. Enter a Connecticut yankee named William Eaton, who would.
Obstinate, irritable, sensitive to the slightest insult to his honor, or to his country's, he was accustomed to going his own way against the odds. He had served as a sergeant in the Revolutionary War at only 19, and then pursued an education in the classics at Dartmouth, not getting his degree till he was 27.