Joshua E. London: Interview About His New Book on the Barbary Wars

Historians in the News

Joshua E. London's new book on America's Barbary Wars -- Victory in Tripoli : How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation -- draws fascinating parallels to the current War on Terror. The following is an interview with the author, conducted in October 2005.

JUDD: 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?

LONDON: 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.

JUDD: 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?

LONDON: 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.

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....

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