To the Shores of Tripoli

Posted: Jul 11, 2011 3:15 PM

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.

Talk about the advantages of a broad liberal education: William Eaton was soon commissioned a captain in the United States Army. But his military career proved a checkered one, marked by charges and counter-charges of insubordination till he was court-martialed and ordered suspended from the service. Wisely the order was never carried out. Maybe the secretary of war understood that such a man might be useful in the future. And so he proved.

Appointed consul to Tunis, he began organizing a revolution against the pirate pasha in Tripoli, spending more than $20,000 to lay the groundwork. Then he returned to Washington to press his case for decisive action in his country's war against piracy only to find that the new administration of Mr. Jefferson preferred appeasement, confident it could invoke universal peace just by proclaiming its leader's angelic intentions. On his inauguration as commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces, the Sage of Monticello suggested putting all the American navy's frigates in dry-dock, as there would be no use for them any more under his peace-loving aegis.

In a letter to a friend, William Eaton professed himself much amused by these "predictions of a political millennium which was about to happen in the United States. The millennium was to usher in upon us as the irresistible consequence of the goodness of heart, integrity of mind, and correctness of disposition of Mr. Jefferson. All nations, even pirates and savages, were to be moved by the influence of his persuasive virtue and masterly skill in diplomacy." Sound familiar? The mood could have been that of Inauguration Day, 2009.

General Eaton was left to strike out on his own in 1804, pausing in Alexandria to raise a ragtag army before proceeding westward to the pasha of Tripoli's domains.

To quote one historian, the redoubtable Henry Adams: "So motley a horde of Americans, Greeks, Tripolitans and Arab camel-drivers had never before been seen on the soil of Egypt. Without discipline, cohesion, or sources of supply, even without water for days, their march of five hundred miles was a sort of miracle."

There was no "sort of" about it.

It's hard to think of any term but miraculous for the highly improbable series of cliffhanger victories General Eaton and his motliest of crews proceeded to pull off. Till the pasha of Tripoli decided that making peace with the infidels -- without being expressly paid for it this time -- was better than risking his throne and head. William Eaton proved a T.E. Lawrence ahead of his time, about two centuries ahead. Or maybe a David Petraeus. In any event, American honor was vindicated.

But for only the shortest of times. Because then, beginning a long American tradition, our diplomats bargained away the fruits of war for a fragile peace. The pasha of Tripoli wound up being paid $60,000, and General Eaton returned home -- to much applause but little reward. He would end life an embittered old man taking solace in drink and imprecations against craven politicians.

Once again, a force advances upon Tripoli to overthrow a minor but bloody tyrant. They say history repeats itself, but, please, let's not repeat the sad end of General Eaton's valiant campaign, shall we? On to the shores of Tripoli. Our dead await.