October 2005

Joey Rubin


The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World by Frank Lambert

Everybody loves Pirates. Children love their cartoonish nature, hipsters love their awkward fashion, writers love their timeless villainy. Everyone, that is, except for America's Founding Fathers.

Yes, that's right. Ever wonder what happened after the Revolutionary War was won and before the US of A lived happily ever after as an eternal beacon of Liberty, Justice and all that...? Pirates. Really.

In his recent book, The Barbary Wars, Frank Lambert tells the story -- in respectable historical detail -- of the fledgling, pre-Consitutional United States facing off against the so-called Barbary Pirates, or Muslim North Africa's mercenary naval forces. And this is not a story of a powerful America rising above the negative forces of tyranny. Rather, it's one of an insignificant (politically and militarily speaking) United States struggling to bring to life the still infantile concept of "free-trade" in a world-economy dominated by mercantile-minded naval powers (like Britain, France and Spain.)

If you were under the impression that Pirates roamed the high seas in search of shiny loot buried under X-marked sand dunes or, alternately, that the US rose to quick economic and political prominence soon after the Brits were booted, this meticulously written historical account of an oft-overlooked regional scuffle should be on your to-read list. Likewise, if you thought the post-Ottoman Arab world always lived in opposition to the European world, and that after the Revolutionary War, the US quickly joined the ranks of the "Western" superpowers -- well, let's just say this book has the potential to clear a lot of things up for you.

Thoroughly researched and easy to follow, The Barbary Wars is a scholarly text that, as clearly stated in the Introduction, focuses on the "political and economic" history of this naval interaction -- and not on the cultural implications of this early "Christian, USA vs. Muslim, Arab World" clash. Dates, Generals, Treaties and other aspects of the political chess game are listed, explained and organized so as to present the Barbary Wars as a coherent and logical narrative. But the cultural implications of this oft-overlooked, yet relevant, conflict are not ignored.

It is inescapable that connections to the modern day are to be made when such a history is retold. In the end, Lambert's text offers a useful perspective on contemporary American interactions with the Arab world, discussing a time before hypocrisy and greed were the unspoken subtext prompting American military actions, before the world community had reason to distrust the American "ideals" that such military actions were said to support. Likewise, reading about the US at a time when it was relatively insignificant on the world stage is humbling, and the sense of perspective it offers is bracing. Remembering that it was just over two hundred years ago when the United States, a "petty" (Lambert's word) military power, had no choice but to negotiate ad infinitum before shooting a single gun is enlightening in the best possible way.

The Barbary Wars is focused on a specific series of events, but it offers a glimpse at an America that is at the core of everything we "fight" about today, abroad and at home. Books like this should be on everyones' reading list. Especially if they intend to wrap a bandana around their head, hoist a parrot onto one shoulder and wear an eye-patch come Halloween.

The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World by Frank Lambert
Hill and Wang
ISBN: 0809095335
202 Pages