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March 7, 2011

Why is Tripoli so popular with historians?

In October, I had no idea what was going to happen in North Africa.  Yet, I felt drawn to write a history of the “Barbary pirates.” I didn’t yet realize what would happen this year, nor did I know that Hollywood was already working on a film on that subject.

The first time I remember hearing any details about “Tripoli” was on board an old American ship, which was turned into a museum.  I think it was the Constitution.  I was just a school kid who might have seen a few pirate movies and heard a we war stories from elderly relatives.

My godmother was the first female conductor of the US navy.  But there were so many other naval battles, why is “Tripoli” still remembered?

In school, we learned about Lewis and Clark, we covered Napoleon, some of us knew about the Whiskey Rebellion and even people like Nelson.  Decatur, however, was extra credit to most of us.

Books that talk about the history of the United States often gloss over the war.  Tripoli is a footnote on Decatur’s biography even in some encyclopedias about with American history.  Decatur himself not one of those figures you “have to” learn about.

The Tripolitan War seemed perhaps insignificant to those charged with teaching the history.  In Libyan history books, it has been absent as well.

Denmark had it’s own “war” with Tripoli, Turkey did too, so did so many other powers.  The Karamanli Dynasty had fought with or against almost every significant country of the early 19th century.  But not everyone was at war with the United States.

The American government did everything it could to avoid war.  In fact, of its first five wars, only two were really declared. This mentality, which I will explain elsewhere, kept the American armed forces small.

The small american military made history more exciting.  Its easy to read a document, an old journal, a letter, even a congressional report or a newspaper article and sense urgency and uncertainty. Every seaman, every soldier, seems to be right in the middle of action.  And every person counts.

Recent wars have been waged on a such a massive scale that we can’t tell if a story about it is fact or fictional.  Even earlier wars in the same area, fought between great powers, had a lot of scope for making things up.

But when every moment counts, things are different.

To the tactical historian, Tripoli is an enigma as well as a rallying point.  If Jefferson or Lear or Adams or Morris did this or that, then perhaps things would have turned out differently.

To the contemporary historian, Tripoli is a lesson for today.  I’ve stumbled across many articles, and political and scholarly treaties, which retell part of the story in order to argue for how we should run the country (or the navy, or the budget, or something else) today.

Personally, I don’t buy most of the arguments made, but I’m fascinated with the way the story is retold each time.

No land was gained.  No leaders were deposed.  Other countries claim to have had more effect on the region, at least until World War II.

To me, what’s interesting is the intimacy of the war.  It was personal to everyone who wrote about it in the 19th century.  It was small enough that people didn’t just use it to fill pages.

It changed the lives of people involved.  It changed, in many ways, American.  Ok, so the Quasi War with France and the War of 1812 could steal the credit for many of the triumphs and tragedies of Tripoli.

But there were at least two events during that war which changed America forever, even if they didn’t have their full effect for another two hundred years.  (Stay tuned for news on where these stories will be published.) And there were men who came out of it changed for life.

Those few historians who say that the war is forgotten have never visited the haunted houses, have never visited the old boats, have never talked to anyone in the navy, and have likely not read very much in the library either.

Everywhere, the feats of Decatur, Eaton, Leitensdorfer and others have some down to us through literature, movies and around the camp fire.

There is one more thing that makes Tripoli fascinating, something I didn’t discover until December.  I haven’t seen anyone tackle it head on, but there is something very strange about the histories of Tripoli.  But that is another story.