…to the shores of Tripoli.

The author protecting vital American interests abroad (1986).

For the second time in my life, we are involved in military operations in Libya.

1986, I was a student in Paris.  My intense studies in wine, women and song (okay, maybe not so much singing) were briefly interrupted by the bombing of Tripoli.  I received an urgent phone call in the middle of the night.  My frantic parents were begging me to come home.  “No way,” was my reply.

It had little to nothing to do with bravery.  I was having too good of a time to return home.

American motives were clear: Ronald Reagan was sending Moammar Gadhafi a 2,000-pound Hallmark greeting card.  It was both payback and a warning.

La Belle night club after 1986 bombing.

Libya was caught red-handed in shooting and grenade attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna, as well as bombing a Berlin disco in which U.S. servicemen were killed and wounded.  Operation El Dorado Canyon was intended to punish the Libyan leader.  There was also a warning to Gadhafi to behave himself henceforth.

Kadhafi escaped with his life only after being warned either by the Maltese Prime Minister or by an Italian politician named Bettino Craxi that the attacks were coming.  Afterward, the Libyan media circulated an apocryphal story that Gadhafi’s “adopted daughter” had been killed.  It turned out that there was no truth to this account.

Lockerbie, Scotland 1988.

Libya retaliated with a heinous act of terrorism — the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Soon after U.S. Operation El Dorado Canyon bombs began going off all over Paris.  As an American, I tried to make myself as small of a target as possible.  I briefly considered dressing like a French guy.  That notion lasted all of five seconds.  Couldn’t do it.  Their version of dressing cool was a sort of sissified version of James Dean.

Additionally, as an American, I was offended by France’s denial of overflight permission of French airspace during El Dorado Canyon.  This forced American pilots to fly thousands of miles in a circuitous air route.

Here we are 25 years later.  I must admit, this time, the reasons are a whole lot better.  Arguably, the U.S. and other nations are taking preemptive action to stave off the mass murder of the Libyan civilian population.

Rwanda 1994.

It turns out that Rwandan genocide was a game-changer for the United States of America.  The 1994 mass-slaughter of Tutsis by the rival Hutu tribe took place while the rest of the world basically did nothing.  Within 100 days, over 800,000 people were butchered.

Charges that the U.S. was biased against Africa were fueled by the fact that U.S. President Bill Clinton committed military resources to preventing genocide in Europe.  In 1999, U.S. bombers and missiles came to the rescue of Kosovars under continued attack by Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia.

Here are some interesting facts about the current Operation Odyssey Dawn by the United States in Libya:

  • This is possibly the first time in U.S. history that U.S. forces are involved in three conflicts at once.  It is true that during World War II, there were three or more fronts.  However, U.S. military operations in 1941-1945 were all part of the same military objective.
  • Unlike 1986 when President Reagan acted unilaterally, this time there is a U.N. mandate (Security Council Resolution 1973), and the U.S. forces are part of a multi-national force.
  • Libya 2011

    In 1986, it was clear that U.S. forces were targeting Colonel Kadhafi.  This operation has the stated goal of protecting Libyan opposing forces and civilians.  The U.S. has specifically stated that Kadhafi is not a target.

  • The mission does not have clearly-stated goals.  No one is sure who is leading the oppositional forces, or what will happen should the resistance prevail.
  • So far, there has not been much of an outcry in the Arab world over the fact that western states are leading an attack against a Muslim nation.
  • It has now become clear that without ground forces, the air strikes will not play a decisive part in the resolution of the conflict.  Thus, the two sides are presently at a stalemate.
  • On the bright side, it appears that this operation prevented a massacre of Libyans in Benghazi.  At least, for now…

I haven’t yet brought up the fact that Operation Odyssey Dawn represents the third time in history that U.S. has engaged in military operations in Libya.

Barbary Corsair.

In 1801, the United States of America went to war with the Barbary States of North Africa.  The Sultanate of Morocco and the State of Tripoli made up the Barbary States, quasi-independent entities nominally tied to the Ottoman Empire.

The Barbers would send out pirates from the North African ports of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers to harass ships in the Mediterranean Sea.  During the American revolution, U.S. ships in that region were protected by France under a treaty between France and the Barbary States.  However, once the Revolutionary War was over, American ships were subject to having to pay tribute to the pirates.

After two U.S. boats were seized, the Barbary States demanded the exorbitant sum of $660,000 from the fledgling nation to protect itself from further acts of piracy.  This was way more money than the country could afford.

Over the ensuing years, more American boats were seized.  In 1795, the U.S. paid Algeria $1 million for the release of 115 American sailors.  This amount was about 1/6 of the entire U.S. budget.

To prevent further extortion, the U.S. Navy was created in 1798.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became president.  He immediately refused the tribute of $225,000 demanded by the Pasha of Tripoli.  In response, Tripoli declared war on the United States.

America was ready.  It had stationed naval boats in the Mediterranean for just such a turn of events.

The Enterprise & The Tripoli

On August 1, 1801, the U.S. schooner Enterprise defeated the warship Tripoli in a gun battle.  In the ensuing years, the U.S. Navy formed and enforced a blockade of the Barbary ports.

The burning of the USS Philadelphia.

In 1803, the Tripolitans captured the U.S. Philadelphia, and planned to use her against the American fleet.  American Marines launched a daring raid, taking control of the Philadelphia and setting her afire to deny the enemy use of her guns.  British Admiral Horatio Nelson called this action “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

In April to May 1805, a small force of U.S. Marines accompanied by foreign mercenaries landed in Alexandria, Egypt.  They made their way across the desert to the Tripolitan city of Derma.  They captured Derma and launched the U.S. flag.  It was the first time in history that the American colors were flown in victory on foreign soil.

This action has been immortalized in the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn:

From the halls of Montezuma,

To the shores of Tripoli.

We will fight our country’s battles,

In the air, on land, and sea.

— The Major


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lisa on March 27, 2011 at 5:47 am

    I remember that all too well… totally scared I’d never see you again. The day you finally came home was one of pure joy for me. Enough said.


  2. Posted by Cecily on March 27, 2011 at 11:32 am

    You know, if the whole attorney thing doesn’t work out you would be a great history teacher.


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