The Marines’ Hymn is the oldest official military song in the United States, and it opens with references to two great battles in Marine Corps history:
“From the halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli”
The first reference is to the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, fought from 1846 to 1848. But the latter goes back even farther, to the First Barbary War of 1801-1805, the first major challenge to the newborn United States.
A quick lesson: several Muslim caliphates were making quite a tidy living by either practicing piracy in the Mediterranean, or taking “protection money” from nations to lay off their ships. The US initially paid the blackmail, but the price soon rose too high for the fledgling Republic. We tried to negotiate with them, but we were told that it was their sacred right and duty to pillage on the high seas:
It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.
That was that. The United States sent its navy, led by the USS Enterprise (one in a long, long line of highly distinguished ships to bear that proud name), and after several naval battles, the United States Marine Corps landed and captured the city that is now Libya’s capitol.
OK, enough of a history lesson. The point of all that was to observe that the first major challenge the United States faced after winning independence was fanatical Muslims committing high crimes and atrocities in the name of their religion. It’s deja vu all over again.
The precedent it set was that piracy on the high seas was the concern of all civilized nations. Every warship afloat, whatever the flag it flies, is charged with fighting pirates, no matter where they are found.
Which is why this story is not merely the concern of the French.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States lost its biggest rival for power projection on the high seas. The Russian Navy has rapidly deteriorated, and the Chinese navy (I’m sorry, “The People’s Liberation Army Navy,” one of the most oxymoronic names around) is not much beyond a coastal force. With their passing, the need for a powerful United States navy has seemingly faded.
When we were going up against the Soviet Union, we came down on the “quality” side of the equation, while the Soviets worked for the “quantity” side. Indeed, Stalin himself once stated that “quantity has a quality of its own,” and he was right in many cases.
What we need, right now, is numbers, not high-tech superships. We don’t need to defend our fleets against waves after waves of cruise missiles and scores of attack subs, the forte of the old Soviet Navy. What we need are small, powerfully armed, relatively low-tech warships, and we need them by the dozens.
Hell, I think that some old gun cruisers and destroyers would be far more useful in fighting pirates than one or two Aegis cruisers or destroyers. The enemy we face uses small boats and small arms to attack private ships, and high-tech anti-aircraft systems and million-dollar anti-ship missiles are overkill — if needed at all. Several ships with a couple of inches of good old steel armor and numerous guns in the 5″, 6″, and 8″ range would work wonders in discouraging piracy.
Alas and alack, we don’t even have many of those left in mothballs. There is only one American heavy cruiser and one American light cruiser still in existence, and the USS Salem and the USS Little Rock are museum ships.
We might be a bit luckier with smaller ships. There are some destroyers still around, of the Charles Adams class, the Sumner/Gearing class, the Forrest Sherman class, and a couple of other gunned destroyers we could dust off. Or we could cannibalize their weapons systems for new hulls, ones with modern propulsion and communications and sensor systems.
But the one thing we can not do is to simply ignore or downplay the threat of piracy. Right now they’re working on the Horn of Africa, and that’s not that removed from the sea lanes where so many oil tankers pass through. One or two successful attacks on supertankers, and the world will be in a world of hurt.
But there’s too much