"From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli" bellows the first stanzas of the Marine's Battle Hymn. While these words have rung out on more than one occasion, few know the stories behind them. Richard Zacks' The Pirate Coast gives the reader a gritty glimpse into America's first covert operation. This secret mission not only led to the shores of Tripoli, but also began the controversial precedent of regime change in U.S. policy. Zacks documents the life of the bombastic yet disciplined leader of this covert operation, William Eaton. The author also uses well-documented historical information to give the reader an understanding of the people and events surrounding Eaton's attempt at regime change on the Barbary Coast.
Once the United States gained its freedom from the British Empire, we also lost Mother England's protection. Pirate nations who had been paid tribute by the British saw a new client in the fledgling United States and quickly took advantage of the unprotected cargoes and crews. This was the first test of resolve and strength for the Americans.
Zacks portrays the zealously patriotic Revolutionary War veteran William Eaton as beyond eager to prove the military might of his country. President Jefferson was tenuously convinced by Eaton that Hamet, the exiled brother of Tripoli's leader, Bashaw Yussef Karamanli could lead a revolt against the Bashaw. Jefferson gave Eaton little resources and maintained deniability about the whole event should the revolt fail. Thus, the first covert operation and first example of U.S. sponsored regime change were set into motion.
William Eaton. came from moderate means to ascend to a diplomatic post in Tripoli. Consistently (and many times publicly) incensed at the barbarous and undemocratic ways of Tripoli, he was forced to leave his post, only to return one day as an invading General. Through intensive research of personal correspondences and diaries, Richard Zacks was able to capture not only the gravity of Eaton's heroics but his many failures as well. Eaton's notion of a universe of black and white, good and evil made him a staunch defender of his beliefs (many times to the detriment of his health, wealth, and the success of his missions). However, his clear ethical boundaries were also his saving grace.
The Pirate Coast describes the physical trials of Eaton's motley crew of marines, Moslems, and mercenaries. It chronicles Eaton's search for the Bashaw's exiled brother, the gathering of an army, and the dangerous desert travel to Derne (a Tripoli stronghold). The entire expedition can best be described as long moments of malaise periodically broken up by intense periods of chaos that jeopardized the entire mission. From Moslem revolts, to supply losses, to merely getting lost, it appeared from the outset that the mission would be doomed. Zacks conveys the sense of urgency and suspense that must have surrounded Eaton's crew from day one all the way through the invasion of Derne.
Beyond the military history and biography, the author also spends a great deal of time describing the political undercurrents in America throughout the conflict. The militant Federalists squared off against pacifistic Republican President Jefferson at nearly every turn. Zacks' glimpse into the minds of President Jefferson, then Senator John Quincy Adams, and their contemporaries about issues relating to war and the military provide an interesting subtext.
While The Pirate Coast will primarily be consumed by people with an appetite for U.S. military history, I would highly recommend it (although parts may prove too dense) as a gripping adventure about the high seas and exotic deserts of the Mediterranean.