“Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years, Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear…” ~ from “I’m Gonna Knock You Out”, by LL Cool J (1990)
Don’t ever think that we’re new to the regime-change business. We’ve had over two centuries of experience messing with other countries.
On April 27, 1805, a small force of United States Marines, commanding about 500 mercenaries and supported by three warships, an ambitious diplomat and a deposed former pasha, attacked and captured the city of Derne in modern-day Libya. It was the first recorded land battle by the United States on foreign soil, and the first time the Stars and Stripes flew in combat in another country.
It was also part of our first war on terror (sensing a pattern here?).
Since the 1600s, pirates sponsored by the Barbary States (Modern day Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya) preyed upon Western ships in the Mediterranean. The Barbary States were (except for Morocco) nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. In reality, they stopped listening to Constantinople a long time ago. Each state quietly sponsored a pirate fleet that pillaged any ship entering their waters, usually for gold, materials, ships and especially captives to be ransomed for big payouts.
To avoid such inconveniences, the Great Powers of Europe did what most Great Powers do: pay off the pirates to leave them alone. Britain, France and other sea powers paid the Barbary States a yearly “tribute” to let their ships sail the Mediterranean untouched.
By 1801, the young United States suffered a similar problem in the Med. Unfortunately, it couldn’t afford to pay off the pirate states; thus leading to the rallying cry, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”, which actually came from the previous XYZ Affair with the French in 1797-1798, but it seems to fit better here.
For four long years, the US Navy engages in a series of naval and coastal battles with Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, known collectively as the Barbary Wars. There were successes and failures on both sides: an American frigate was lost in 1801, the USS Philadelphia, only to have it burned in Tripoli harbor in a daring raid. It deprived the Tripolitans of their prize and even impressed Lord Horatio Nelson, the great British naval commander who had his hands (or hand, I forgot he lost an arm) full with Napoleon so he couldn’t meddle too much.
Things were seemingly at a stalemate by 1805, when a diplomat, an old veteran of the Middle East, had a crazy idea.
William Eaton was the former US Consul to Tunis, a man with a decent reputation amongst Arabs and Americans alike. As the war dragged on, Eaton was recalled to Washington and came up with an outrageous way to gain the upper-hand. Instead of ships slugging it out in the Med, the war could open a second front on land. The ruler of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, deposed his brother Hamet in a coup ten years earlier. The plan would involve going to Egypt, where the exiled brother was living, recruit him and hundreds of mercenaries to cross the desert and reinstate him to his rightful throne. The whole scheme involved naval support from three military vessels and a handful of US Marines led by First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.
Amazingly, the US government gave full support to this adventure, sending Eaton to the Med with the lofty, if slightly bullshitty, title of “Naval Agent to the Barbary States.” He found Hamet Karamanli, who agreed to the plan and helped recruit about 500 Arab and Greek mercenaries—with Eaton acting as general and commander-in-chief (he appointed himself). They set up a base in Alexandria, Egypt, where Eaton, O’Bannon, Hamet and squadron commander Isaac Hull laid out their plans. The objective would be the port city of Derne, capital of the province of Cyrenaica and a base of power for Yusuf.
This motley crew sets across the Libyan desert on March 6, 1805. It would take almost two months and over 500 miles to cross, and it soon became clear that mercenaries tend to be a handful—especially when they’re two groups that hate each other. They were promised money and supplies upon reaching Derne, and many weren’t willing to wait that long. On any given occasion, either the Arabs or the Greeks (sometimes both) threatened to mutiny. In the first week alone, several of the Arab camel drivers mutinied and turned back. Things didn’t really settle down until April 25, when they reached Bomba, a city up the coast from Derne where the three naval vessels waited with the appropriate money and supplies to keep the mercenaries happy…for now.
Hull’s squadron bombarded Derne on April 27. Hamet Karamanli led the Arab mercenaries towards the governor’s palace, cutting of the escape route to Tripoli, while Eaton led the Greeks and the Marines towards the harbor fortress. Hamet’s forces stormed the western part of the city easily, while Eaton was seriously wounded leading his force over the walls of the defenses. The defenders left all their cannon loaded as they fled, so Eaton turned the guns on the city and opened fire. Meanwhile, O’Bannon raised the American flag over the Derne defenses. The town fell by 4 in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Yusuf had already sent reinforcements to Derne, only to find that the city had already fallen. While Eaton fortified his position, Hamet and the Arabs patrolled the governor’s palace and the outskirts. When Yusuf’s forces attacked on May 13, the Arabs fell back before Eaton’s guns and the batteries of the USS Argus saved the day, driving the invaders back to their original positions.
Feeling confident, Eaton was ready to press on to Tripoli and finish off Yusuf…and then, en route to his prize, his government stabs Eaton in the back.
Yusuf, eager to keep his throne against his invading brother, sent feelers out to the US to sign a peace treaty. Tobias Lear, George Washington’s former secretary and now Consul General to the North African Coast, negotiated a Treaty of Peace and Amity with Yusuf on June 4, 1805. Incredibly, the treaty did exactly as the US didn’t want to do: pay a ransom, this time $60,000 for the release of prisoners from the Philadelphia and other ships. Even worse, Yusuf would keep his throne, with the backing of the United States.
Hamet would return to Alexandria, the mercenaries would never be paid in full, and although O’Bannon and Eaton returned home as heroes, they never forgave Lear for his perceived treachery.
Despite the setbacks, Derne was more than just a pyrrhic victory. Important lessons were learned, such as:
Never fuck with the Marines – a handful…yes, a HANDFUL…of Marines managed to recruit a regiment of hired killers, march them 500 miles across the Sahara, then attack a heavily fortified position, take possession AND repel ensuing counterattacks. Derne made the US Marine Corps, plain and simple. All jarheads trace their ancestry to Presley O’Bannon and his small band of asskickers—and they did it in those hot-as-hell Napoleonic uniforms, making them even more badass. Finally, the Mameluke sword Marine officers carry today is modeled on the one supposedly given to O’Bannon by Hamet Karamanli as a gift for his service.
Never run a line of credit on mercenaries – The 500 goons hired to take Derne wanted cash, and fast. Eaton kept dangling the carrot to get them crossing the desert, hyping the riches of Derne if they just got there. A few mutinies later, it was clear they had to stop short and pay that deposit. Mercenaries don’t carry plastic, and they don’t take IOUs or even COD. When they were forced to return thanks to the treaty…let’s just say any town between Derne and Alexandria was fair game.
In a multinational force, the Yanks often draw the shit job – ask the poor guys at Omaha Beach about this one. Hamet Karamanli takes the Arabs to the west side of town with almost no resistance, while Eaton and O’Bannon slog over the defenses and sustain a lot of the damage, at least initially. Their offense ground to a halt while Hamet’s Arabs stormed the rest of the town in a walk.
No one fucks over a diplomat as much as another diplomat – or, for that matter, an FBI agent, a spy, a CIA operative, a Senate committee chairman, etc. Derne was the start of 200 years of half-finished foreign adventures, thanks to the double-dealing, backstabbing, face-saving and ass-kissing of our federal agencies that rarely play nice together for long.
If We Lose, It Doesn’t Count – America’s “Small Wars”
There have been times in our history when a declaration of war could not come fast enough.
Most students have knowledge of a list of conflicts considered the major wars of US history: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War (I don’t think we count Afghanistan yet. If I’m wrong, let me know.)
Yet these have not been our only use of military force. According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service, the United States has been involved in hundreds of military actions since independence. Most have been actions recommended by the President and authorized by Congress. In some cases, a country declares war on us, and we don’t bother–we simply blow them up.
Whatever the case, here are some of our “small wars”, our smaller military engagements overseas.
Undeclared War with France 1798-1800
What happens when you have to pay a bill from a restaurant that’s “under new management”? You get a naval war with France. The French Revolution put a stopper on the alliance the United States signed with the old Kingdom of France in 1778. Along the way, the US decided to no longer repay its debts to France, arguing that they made a treaty with the previous government, not the current one. Furthermore, the 1795 Jay Treaty helped smooth things over with Great Britain. France responds by going ape-shit on our shipping, capturing hundreds of tons of US cargo. This brief scuffle existed mostly at sea, and a sit-down with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800 settled the matter–far too late to get John Adams re-elected President. Maybe Johnny should’ve turned this one into the real thing.
First and Second Barbary Wars 1801-1805, 1815
The Middle East was always a pain in our ass, dating back to Thomas Jefferson. The Barbary States of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli were supposedly part of the Ottoman Empire, but they decided to ignore Constantinople since the 17th century for big money. These states supported pirate fleets across the Mediterranean, and demanded tribute from European powers wishing to sail in its turf. The British and French could afford the payouts, but not the US. They tried paying out in the 1780s, but the Barbary demands proved too much. Cue the nascent US Navy, whose four frigates and numerous small craft dealt a four-year pounding to the Barbary fleets–and helped create the Navy’s first heroes. It also helped that Britain and France were too busy fighting each other to mind. Treaties were signed by 1805, but apparently didn’t stick. By 1815, another whupping was needed. This time, they got the message.
Chinese Intevention 1843, 1854, 1866, 1894-1895, 1898-1899, 1900, 1911-1912, etc.
Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be the nice guy. The United States had a mission in China since the early 1800s, when the European powers were carving up the country into “spheres of influence.” The US decided to take the high road and enforce all countries to trade equally with China through the “Treaty ports” as in Canton, pictured above. Our forces found out, really quickly, that (a) keeping the foreigners in line was no easy task, and (b) keeping the locals in check was even harder. Throughout the 19th Century, the US would be engaged in skirmishes with locals, pirates, smugglers, other navies, etc. The climax was the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, which pitted rebellious Chinese–and their do-nothing government–against an eight-nation supersquad armed to the teeth. By now, the Americans were sick of being the nice guy and just wanted to get what’s coming. Our forces would be in China, off and on, until the Communist takeover of 1949. Something told me Chairman Mao was not thrilled about having us there.
Philippines Rebellion 1899-1913
America got into the imperialism business late: by the time we entered whole-hog in 1898, all the good stuff was taken–damn you, Belgium! Anyway, the only way to get our own foreigners to boss around was to steal them from someone else. Who better to steal from than the wounded gazelle that is the Spanish Empire. The Spanish-American War in 1898 gained us a colonial empire virtually overnight. The Philippines, however, did not understand this, and had the nerve to revolt against their US “liberators”. So began a brutal war of attrition that officially ended with the surrender of the rebels in 1902, but would continue sporadically in the hinterlands until 1913. The intervention was extremely controversial in the States, with Mark Twain doing his best Sean Penn impression as a celebrity meddling in politics. Thus began another great American tradition–celebrities sticking their noses in places where they don’t belong.
Mexican “Pancho Villa” Expedition 1914-1917
Another one of America’s great sticking points is Mexico–or as Zachary Taylor may have called it, “the part we didn’t steal.” I think they’re better off without California, to be honest. Anyway, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1929 was putting Mexico into political and social turmoil. The American military was monitoring the situation closely, especially that of an erratic guerrilla leader named Francisco “Pancho” Villa. In 1915, in retaliation for US support of a rival presidential candidate, Villa’s forces crosse the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. A 10,000 man force led by General John Pershing was sent to find and punish Villa. The men found tequila and the brothels, instead, as Pershing was bogged down by orders and directives from Washington. The men withdrew in January 1917, just in time for the big dust-up across the Atlantic.
Nicaraguan Intervention 1912-1933
Remember the Monroe Doctrine? That 1825 protocol that stated that European nations cannot meddle in affairs in the Western Hemisphere? Well, for at least a century, the United States felt this was carte blanche to do whatever we wanted. Teddy Roosevelt even said so in his Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, when he extended US “police powers” to any Central or South American country that reneged on its debt payments. In this case, the US felt that the Panama Canal wasn’t enough: a bigger canal was needed across Nicaragua. Federal troops entered the country in order to (a) make sure no other country tries to build a canal, and (b) prop up the conservative governments in Nicaragua that have been so friendly to US interests. Yet time and the Great Depression would take their toll. The long-standing–and expensive–occupation ended in 1933 when Augusto Sandino led a group of revolutionaries against the occupation forces. US forces would withdraw, only to fight a proxy war with the same group fifty years later. Who do you think the Contras were fighting against? Does the word Sandinista ring a bell?
Dominican Republic 1916-1924
In 1916, after a period of political instability, the United States issued a warning to the Dominican Republic: pick a president or we’ll pick one for you. The guy the Dominicans picked turned out to be a dud, so the United States invaded the island nation and established a military dictatorship that lasted until 1924. The Dominicans, naturally, resisted this foreign rule, and rebellions were met with brutal suppression by US forces. However, the dictatorship managed to do what previous Dominican governments couldn’t–balance the budget, preserve order and stability, lowered the debt, built new roads and created a professional military for the country. By 1924, agreements between the DR and the US provided for free elections to be held, and the occupation was over. Today, Santo Domingo’s greatest ballplayers have come to return the favor.
Hispaniola is a small island, after all, and Haiti wanted its share of US aggression, as well. By 1915 Haiti had 6 presidents in 4 years, all of whom were killed or forced into exile. The US was worried that a German contingent in Haiti would wield too much power, so forces were sent in 1915 to “protect American and foreign interests.” They stayed as the de facto government until 1934. All decisions by the Haitian government had to be okayed by the military occupation. Infrastructure was built using forced labor gangs. Education was reorganized so that both rich and poor were equally pissed off. A rebellion in 1918 was crushed by Marines to the tune of 2000 Haitians dead. Even withdrawal between 1932 and 1934 didn’t help: Haiti would see a series of US-backed military dictatorships for the next half century.
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