Thursday, February 12, 2009

PoetHound Review

Many thanks to PoetHound for reviewing my chapbook Bridge of Bones from Lilliput Review.

An excerpt of the review:

sifting through
the window screen
this evening,
the yellow scent of
wild vines blooming.

“yellow scent” caught my imagination immediately. I think of honeysuckle blooms in my old backyard in Indiana and of the morning glory vines here in Florida. This poem is describes the briefest moment in time and ties it to smell which is one of the most powerful ways to remember something, anything, of importance.

Read the full review at the link above.


Monday, February 02, 2009

More Ignorant Poppycock about Muslim-American History

The article linked above takes umbrage with a Muslim member of Congress using Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Qur'an to swear their oath of office, and proceeds to spout nonsense about the early American-Muslim relationship. So, I was going to post a reply, correcting some of the more egregious errors and explaining the actual state of politics and war at the time, but it grew into a response much too long for a mere comment box. I post it here.

The Dey of Algiers was a not a 'warlord'; he was the elected leader of a military republic. Granted, only the army, navy, maritime, and commercial sections of the country had representatives, but that's not grossly different from the US at the same time where only white men of property could participate in government. The Algerian armed forces didn't attack, but the Dey issued licenses ('letters of marque') permitting his privateers to attack. They attacked us twice, not 'frequently.'

By contrast, during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress and the various state governments issued around two thousand letters of marque. The US was the biggest piratical nation of the day; its privateers outnumbered the Algerian privateers by around a 20-1 margin. Ah, but that was for a righteous cause! American freedom and independence! You think the Muslims didn't think they were fighting in a righteous cause in resisting European, especially Spanish, advances in North Africa? Ultimately they lost and Africa was divvied up into colonies by European powers.

They weren't terrorists. A terrorist is, by definition, a non-state actor who is not recognized as a representative of a legitimate government. The government of Algeria was legitimate and was recognized as such by all European nations and the US as well. Its 'pirates' were actually privateers: privately owned and operated warships commissioned by the government to raid enemy commerce. Algeria was also waging a declared war against Spain and Portugal. (More why that matters below.)

The lack of treaty between the US and Algeria was a real problem; up until around 1800 the assumption was that if no treaty existed between two nations they were at war with one another and it was lawful to prey on each other's commerce. Commerce raiding was firmly entrenched as a naval tactic and the Barbary corsairs were extremely good at it. During the 1800s the 'peace of nations' came to be established doctrine by which the assumption changed; countries that did not have treaties were assumed to be at peace with one another.

As good as the Barbary corsairs were as privateers, the Americans were better. During the war of 1812, one American privateer, Le Chasseur, took 42 prizes all by herself. The vessel was nicknamed 'the Pride of Baltimore.' The state of Maryland has spent and continues to spend millions of dollars on the construction and maintenance on the replica, Pride of Baltimore, and its replacement, Pride of Baltimore II. The Pride I and II served and continue to serve as Maryland's good will ambassador to the world. (It helps to have a well-developed sense of irony while reading history.) I love our privateers. I cannot condemn the Algerians for doing what I admire in my own countrymen.

In 1785 the Algerians seized two (only two) American vessels, the Maria and the Betsy. Both were engaged in trading with Spain, and Algeria was at war with Spain. The interdiction of neutral vessels carrying on trade with the enemy is also a well established principle. The action forced the Americans to negotiate with Algeria, which was the purpose.

At this time there was no treaty between the US and Algeria, although previously, during the American Revolution, Algeria had been sympathetic and had agreed to accept American diplomats if the US would send them, a de facto recognition of American independence, if not a formal one--this even though Algeria was an ally of Great Britain. (Morocco, another Barbary power, was the first to formally recognize US independence in 1777. So much for the pundits' belief that Islam has 'always' hated the US.) The US dragged its feet, thereby insulting Algeria, not to mention, engaged in active trade with Algeria's enemy. The taking of two American vessels served as a wake-up call to the Americans. As a result a treaty was concluded.

The seamen were not enslaved. On the contrary, they were held in relatively decent conditions; the Spanish consul served as their representative and called their conditions 'privileged.' If the Spanish, who were at war with the Algerians and had every reason to vilify them thought the Americans were 'privileged,' they must have been pretty comfy. While some of them were used for labor, the labor was light, such as serving as zookeepers in the Dey's personal garden. (He kept exotic pets). While working a job you don't get paid for is technically slavery, it is nothing like what African American slaves suffered in the US. It certainly doesn't qualify as 'torture.'

On the contrary, some of them were allowed to establish businesses of their own. James Leander Cathcart (himself an American privateer) established a tavern, learned the local languages (Turkish and Arabic), and rose to be senior clerk/private secretary to the Dey of Algiers. He made a small fortune. He was an effective diplomat even while a captive, and his behind the scenes work helped to bring about the treaty of 1796. Granted, most American captives were not so resourceful, but that such opportunities existed refutes most charges laid against the Algerians.

The second Algerian attack came in 1793, after the United States let the first treaty expire and did not renew. What the novice American diplomats didn't appreciate is that the Koran forbids permanent alliances, and therefore ten years was the practical maximum for a treaty. Americans thought they had negotiated a 'forever' treaty, but the Algerians thought they had made a short-term treaty. The lack of permanent treaties was also in keeping with the views of certain American statesmen. George Washington warned that we should have no permanent alliances, only permanent goals.

The Dey attempted to renew negotiations, but the US refused. Tired of the US's haggling over the captives, foot dragging regarding the payment of US debts, and the absolute refusal to renegotiate, the Dey made a larger gesture. This time eleven ships were seized. The dilatory American response was due to the rise of Thomas Jefferson (he would become President in 1800) and his party. He was a virulent Islamophobe. Referring back to the article linked above, if I were a Muslim, knowing what I know about how Jefferson tried to organize a coalition to wage war against Algeria in 1786 (which found exactly zero support in Europe), I wouldn't have wanted to use his Qur'an for my swearing in ceremony.

In fact, at Jefferson's instigation, the US cut off funds that had been sent to provide food above and beyond the prison fare the Algerian government provided for the American captives. Reread that: Thomas Jefferson refused to provide food to American prisoners. It was his contention that if the American government provided funds to feed the captives, the Algerians would think the government actually cared about their welfare. He also refused to pay $555 per man to ransom the Americans. He offered $200. He didn't wage war to try and free them, either. When he became president, he waged an undeclared war against a different Muslim country, Tripoli. (Now known as Libya.) So, Algeria took Americans captive, and we shelled... Libya. Congress drank the Kool-aid and formally declared war, making it all legal.

The 1796 treaty with Algeria resolved outstanding issues, not the least of which was payment of American debts to Algeria. The Algerians allowed the cash-strapped Americans to make payment in goods: a frigate. The Crescent was built by the US Navy Yard in Philadelphia and delivered to Algeria. I tried to find out what happened to the Crescent after the Algerian navy took possession, but with no luck.

As a side negotiation, the Dey of Algeria agreed to accept four small vessels in payment for other debts. Suffice it to say, the US agreed that Americans owed Algerians a lot of money, and the US navy built three schooners and a brigantine to pay the debt. The Algerian navy wanted ships and the US was lacking in funds, so it worked out. (The brigantin, named 'Hassan Bashaw' by the Americans, was an excellent performer and was the 'proof of concept' vessel that launched the creation of the Baltimore clipper. So, taking the long view, we got a valuable piece of technology out of it.)

Critics promptly lambasted the payment of debts as 'tribute.' If you read the treaties, there is not one word about tribute in them. The treaties include useful provisions, such as the government of Algeria promising to buy all of certain kinds of commodities brought to them, such as timber, pitch, and hemp, at the prevailing market rate. The cash-strapped American economy could have benefited by exploiting a ready outlet at good prices, but it didn't take advantage of the opportunity.

During the Tripolitan War (aka Barbary War), the USS Philadelphia was taken captive by the Libyans. The Americans weren't tortured or enslaved in Tripoli, either. In fact, the Americans were allowed out of prison in small groups to wander around the city unescorted to go shopping and sightseeing. They were spit on, which is rude, but isn't torture. In fact, they had sufficient freedom that they were able to spy on the fortifications, and using invisible ink, sent intelligence information to Americans outside the city.

In the late 20th century an American delegation went to Tripoli to investigate American casualties of combat who were buried in unmarked graves on the beach during the Tripolitan War. The delegation was during the height of friction with Gaddafi. (Reagan dropped rockets on his house and killed some of his family members. Remember that? Gadaffi was an ardent advocate of terrorism and pro-foundly anti-American. He has since refuted terrorism.) The Americans were given every courtesy and assistance by the Mayor of Tripoli, who was a direct descendant of the man who ruled Libya during the Tripolitan War. Given the anti-American sentiment in Libya at the time, it was feared the graves would have been desecrated, but they weren't. They were well-maintained with a small marker. The US team was prepared to move or improve the graves, but it turned out that there was nothing that needed to be done.

This article does not intend to make light of the suffering of the American captives during the friction with the North African states. Being a prisoner is never fun, and to survive on prison fare in a foreign country is a thing to lead a man to despair. To be kept far from loved ones and to suffer the frustration of a skinflint government cutting off financial support can hardly have instilled the prisoners with either hope for their release or faith that their government actually cared about them. However to invent lurid tales of things they didn't actually suffer demeans them by refusing to acknowledge the truth of the hardships they did suffer.

It also insults those Muslims of good will who behaved decently and honorably. As long as people are willing to spout opinions without facts, to distort what few facts they have, and to refuse to acknowledge the good points as well as the bad points of their opponents, there will never be peace in the world. History ought to be the record of truth and the tool whereby we come to understand instead of vilify our enemies. Putting an end to terrorism means holding people accountable for what they actually did, not for what we imagine they did. And it applies to both sides of the conflict. To recognize our own faults gives us the opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. Nothing is more persuasive to our doubters than to set a good example.