Of swearing, ‘pirates’ and history repeating

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gregory Ottoman
  • 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron commander
"I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support the constitution of the United States. I do solemnly swear or affirm to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me."

This oath sounds familiar doesn't it? It's the first oath under the Constitution and was approved by Act of Congress on Sept. 29, 1789. I find it interesting to look back in our nation's history and find that some things have changed, yet others are very similar. Members of our Armed Forces are taking our current oath in a time when our nation is at war against murderers and criminals, who hide behind the veil of religion to justify their cause. America was facing a similar enemy in 1789.

The Barbary States consisted of the Sultanate of Morocco and the Regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. These states supported piracy around the Mediterranean. Prior to 1783, American ships were protected by England's Royal Navy, as well as English tribute to the Barbary States. When we gained our independence, we lost our protected status and began paying tribute to the pirate states. By 1800, our payments in ransom and tribute came to a staggering 20 percent of the United States' government annual revenues. While serving as the Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson met with an envoy from Tripoli and asked by what right they demanded tribute. He was said to have responded "...it was written in the Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman (or Muslim) who should be slain in battle was sure to go to heaven." Sound familiar?

When Jefferson was inaugurated as President in 1800, Tripoli demanded an immediate tribute of $250,000, a huge amount at that time. Jefferson, who had previously stated "Millions For Defense, Not One Cent For Tribute" refused and sent a squadron of frigates to protect our interests in the Mediterranean. He also informed Congress, although they never voted on a formal declaration of war (also sounds familiar). Five years of conflict ensued, leading to the Battle of Derna (April-May 1805), a daring overland attack on the Tripolitan city of Derna by a combined force of United States Marines and Arab, Greek and Berber mercenaries under the command of the U.S. forces.

This action was memorialized in the Marine Hymn -- "to the shores of Tripoli." Their daring actions gave the American forces a significant advantage; however the conflict dragged on until finally, in May 1815, Commodore Decatur sailed his squadron of nine ships to the Mediterranean Sea and through his victorious actions, finally ended the international practice of paying tribute to pirate states.

Some people say history repeats itself. The battle against Al-Qaeda, has been ongoing since Bin Laden issued his Fatawa in 1996, declaring "War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." Today, more than 200 years after the first oath of enlistment approved under our Constitution, members of our Armed Forces are still "swearing" and fighting our own "Barbary Pirates."