America's First War on Islamic Terror: BrothersJudd interview of Joshua E. London, author of Victory in Tripoli : How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation
Joshua E. London's new book on America's Barbary Wars draws fascinating parallels to the current War on Terror. The following is an e-mail interview with the author, conducted in October 2005.
Q: We seem to be rediscovering our history at long last. Ken Burns gave us a Civil War renaissance. David McCullough got us reading about the Revolution again. Now you've brought another too little-remembered war to our attention. How did you get interested in the Barbary Wars?
I first became substantively aware of the Barbary Wars when a friend suggested that the early 19th century Marine action in Tripoli would make for an interesting story. I was loosely aware that America had had a Barbary War of some sort, and knew the first line of the Marine Corps hymn, but that was about it.
The more I looked into the history, however, the more I realized how little I knew. Although I already knew large chunks of American history of the general period from independence through the war of 1812, the Barbary Wars had hardly registered in my previous readings and study.
Most contemporary histories of the general period seemed content to make no mention at all of the conflict, or to relegate the subject to a couple of trivial lines or to the footnotes. Delving deeper, I discovered that there were a few works out there that focused on the Barbary story, but they were hardly in wide circulation, and the more scholarly ones had been out of print for decades. Further, as I studied these other works, I began to realize that most of the accounts were colored by jingoism or exhibited somewhat simplistic understandings of the Mahgreb-particularly from a post 9/11 vantage point. So once I recognized that there was a need for some better history, I took it up in earnest.
Q: Is American history one of your particular fields of interest?
American history is of considerable interest to me, as is history in general, but I don't know that I would claim ground in the field. Generally, the more I learn, the more I realize that I have so much more to learn. Even though I get excited delving into the past, especially the action adventure bits and all the scheming and intrigue, it can be sort of an enervating experience, in its way. But I do find it fascinating. I enjoy reading history and often find it greatly rewarding, but I am often equally enthralled by the historian's craft and what it says both about the historian and about the historian's contemporary audience.
Q: When you started working on the book, Victory in Tripoli, were you already aware of the parallels to the War on Terror that would be there in the story? What are some of the parallels you see and what can this first encounter with Islam and terror teach us about our own?
Yes, sort of. I did have a vague sense that America's war against Muslim piracy in North Africa held some superficial, if striking, parallels to the War on Terror. It was only as I began to sink my teeth into the details, and especially into the journals and letters of William Eaton, that I began to see just how significant aspects of this really were.
The United States encountered Islam very early in our history. America's first diplomatic encounter with Islam, in the form of John Adams' and Thomas Jefferson's meeting with the Ambassador of Tripoli to Brittan in May 1786, explicitly revealed, over two hundred years ago, the religious nature of the conflict-the jihad-facing the United States. That was before what we call "Colonialism" entered the lands of Islam, before there were any oil interests dragging us into the fray, and well before the founding of the State of Israel. America became entangled in that part of the world and dragged into a war with the Barbary States simply because of the religious obligation within Islam to bring belief to those who do not share it. From there, the other similarities and parallels become almost comically obvious-the hostage crises, the arms for hostage deals, the basic sociological communications divide between Americans and Muslims, the back-handed dealings, the political calculations and expediency, etc. I think you did an excellent job of recounting much of this in your kind and perceptive review of my book.
Despite all of that, however, I didn't want to tell the story as a gloss on current events. I think that makes for bad history and, frankly, bad storytelling. I wanted to give a straight, completely reliable, and interesting account of this history, leaving the punditry to, well, pundits. The parallels and similarities are starkly there, I think, to anyone with an open mind.
Q: Thomas Jefferson's performance during the events here is somewhat uneven-initiating much of the action but later backing off at a key moment--when you were done researching and writing what sort of judgment did you arrive at about him and his presidency?
Well, I always thought of Jefferson as an intriguing and enigmatic figure. He was an obviously gifted and talented genius of sorts, and yet he was also rather strikingly a politician. To say that he was filled with intellectual contradictions would be uninterestingly obvious and yet, well, he was. Jefferson brings to mind David Hume's famous statement that "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." That's Jefferson in a nutshell. Thus, his sense of expediency and economy won out over his sense of national honor, and completely neutered his ideological commitment to end the terror of Muslim piracy against American interests. Jefferson simply had other matters on his agenda that took precedence; as his passions shifted, so eventually did his intellectual energies. So, despite his milking the "victory" in Tripoli for all it was worth, Jefferson's Barbary War was clearly not his best work as President. It is because of the realities of his war that I think it has always gotten short shrift in the history and in the various Jefferson biographies. It just doesn't entirely fit the iconography.
Q: The character around whom you build the book is William Eaton, who's almost a figure of tragedy. What do you make of the arc of his career?
What initially attracted me to Eaton's story is the bull-headed determination and focus he maintained despite overwhelming circumstances. There was something fundamentally American about him in this respect. He was an underdog, an individualist, and frankly a heroic figure-yet in cinematic terms he was a bit more of a Charles Bronson than a John Wayne. He had a very hard edge and a very rough and tumble bearing, and yet given his patriotism and his principles, he was also a very honorable and idealistic man. To me, this hard edge of his helps underscore the rough nobility of his service to our country.
To that extent, the tragedy of his career is both predictable and maddening. He was a divisive figure and, in modern diplomatic terms, would certainly make for a fairly brutish, ugly, and probably disastrous ambassador. Yet, Eaton is exactly the sort of "diplomat" that many Americans would love to see, for example, representing the United States to the United Nations. In a sense, Eaton embodies this American impulse.
Q: The book demonstrates a significant depth of knowledge about period sailing, naval warfare, and the like. Were these topics you were already familiar with or did you have to research them all from scratch?
I was familiar with some of the topics you mention, at least in certain aspects. Much of it I learned from scratch however, or relearned in the course of researching other areas for the book.
In terms of my research methods, such as they are, I always start with reviewing what I think I know about a given topic. Invariably I don't know it half as well as I had thought. From there I try to replace my ignorance with knowledge, and tackle the existing relevant literature.
I tend to immerse myself in the history books. I then proceed to archival data and other primary sources, as available. I particularly try to find first hand accounts-memoirs, diaries, letters, etc. I always try to cast a wide net, and I ask others for help-scholars, historians, librarians, etc.
There are some great sources of information out there on the Barbary Wars. First and foremost, is the six volume Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers compiled from primary sources by the United States Office of Naval Records and Library between 1939 and 1944. From there, it is fairly easy to figure out where to find other official U.S. archival data and primary sources. Then there are the collections of private papers of the some key participants in the story, such as Thomas Jefferson, William Eaton, Tobias Lear, Edward Preble, James Cathcart, etc. Of these, the most comprehensive and spectacular for the subject are the Eaton papers-thousands of documents on three roles of microfiche.
A particularly thrilling experience for me was the Tunisian National Archives. With the very first dossier I found myself unfolding original documents written by the hand of Thomas Jefferson when he was Secretary of State under President Washington. Indeed, after a short period reading through original, 200+ year old, documents by Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Eaton, etc., it suddenly occurred to me that I should probably have been wearing gloves or something. A Sandy Berger type would have had a field day in there-except, perhaps, that the Tunisian police all carry sub-machine guns.
In terms of the ships of the period, the USS Constitution is phenomenal; at 208 years old it is the oldest commissioned warship in the world that is still afloat. If you have any interest at all in early American naval history and will be in the area of Boston Harbor, this is a must-see.
On to some more general questions about you and your writing
Q: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asked a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?
I usually end up spending a huge amount of time doing nothing. That is, I'll spend hours, or days, or even weeks, sitting in front of my computer writing and deleting the lead sentence or paragraph over and over again, as I think it through, over and over. I generally spend a good deal of this time doubting myself, thinking that I have committed myself to more than I can deliver. For some reason, I need this sort of stress to get the ball rolling. It is not altogether rational, but it works.
I try to get as much down on paper as I can. I try to put together timelines of all the various primary materials, just to get the chronology of all this clear in my head. Then I tend to skip around a bit in writing-up the details, based on how clear a certain episode or exchange is in my head. All of this gets haphazardly cobbled together based primarily on my mood and the wanderings of my mind. All the while, I am pouring through my notes and my primary sources again.
Finally, after what seems like forever, I have most of a chapter or section completed. I completely ignore this for a week or so, while I either work on some other chapter, or whatever else I have on my plate. Then I return to it, read it afresh, and add and subtract as necessary.
Most of the intellectual heavy lifting for me is in the editing process. Also, I am a big fan of editing on hardcopy, and routinely print up whatever I have written-even if it is only a few paragraphs.
There is something about a pen in hand that just works for me much better than a glaring computer screen.
Q: Though the book is by no means polemical it does seem to have a certain conservative sensibility. Are you politically active?
Yes, I have been politically active in the past-although I'm not really all that political any more. I am, however, very conservative. Indeed, I used to work for the American Spectator magazine-the heart of the so-called vast right-wing conspiracy that used to be talked about before Neocons became the ultimate bogeyman of the Left. I do a fair amount of copy writing and ghost writing these days. Over the years I have written for the American Spectator, National Review Online, Human Events, and other publications, and I have lately been writing regularly on wine, spirits, and cocktails. I regularly contribute cocktail articles to the Washington Examiner, for example, but those rarely get put online. My last major publication was a chapter I contributed to the book Public Policy and Social Issues: Jewish Sources and Perspectives edited by Marshall J. Breger (Praeger Press, December 2003).
Q: Finally, are there other projects you're working on, another book you'd like to do?
Yes, I've got plenty of ideas for articles and possible books. For example, while working on Victory in Tripoli I came across another little-remembered conflict that I think deserves more attention by modern audiences; it is generally referred to by historians as America's Quasi-War with France (1798-1801). Alternatively, I have also lately been considering a fun book on whiskey cocktails that delves into the social and cultural aspects of their history. At the moment promoting Victory in Tripoli has my full attention. After that, we'll see what happens.
OJ: Thanks very much for your time and consideration. Best of luck with the book.
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