Mark Lamendola, author of over 4,500 articles.
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
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
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
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
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
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.