Paul Greenberg / April 16, 2009

Victory at Sea

Home is the sailor, home from sea. Capt. Richard Phillips, his five-day ordeal happily concluded, has been rescued in the finest tradition of the United States Navy, and his captors dealt with. Effectively and summarily.

In order to save his ship and crew, Capt. Phillips had made himself hostage to the cutthroats who’d seized his unarmed (but scarcely undefended) ship in order to save his crew.

But in the end it was Capt. Phillips who had taken the pirates hostage. For they found themselves afloat in the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa in a little lifeboat, tied to an American warship, and running out of food, water, fuel and strength. The pirates had demanded $2 million and their own release in exchange for the captain’s life. They would get what they deserved.

Once the U.S. destroyer Bainbridge had arrived on the scene, the brigands’ fate was sealed whether they realized it or not. Three snipers, U.S. Navy Seals, waited on the fantail of the destroyer, under instructions not to fire unless the captain’s life seemed in imminent danger.

At the end of the fifth day of this saga of the sea, two of the remaining three bandits (a fourth had turned himself in for medical attention) made their fatal error, poking their heads out of the rear hatch of the lifeboat, giving the snipers a clear shot. The third could be seen menacing the bound captain with his AK-47. That was all the Seals needed to act. Three snipers, three perfect shots in the head. All fired at dusk from a distance using night-vision scopes. End of story. Beginning of celebration.


There was a time when America celebrated its heroes, when victorious troops marched in victory parades and every schoolchild knew the names of heroic figures like Richard Phillips.

Let us revive those times. When the destroyer Bainbridge, which might as well have been christened The Defiant, makes it home, let sirens wail, horns blast and crowds cheer. For a nation that does not honor its victories may soon enough not have many.

Some say these are not heroic times. Capt. Richard Phillips, the crew of the Maersk Alabama, and the U.S. Navy demonstrate otherwise.


Readers looking for their daily dose of defeatism in the midst of this outrage could depend on the New York Times to provide it. On Friday, a front-page article in the Times (“Navy’s Standoff with Pirates/ Shows U.S. Power Has Limits”) explained that any chance of preventing these incidents was limited:

“WASHINGTON – The Indian Ocean standoff between an $800 million United States Navy destroyer and four pirates bobbing in a lifeboat showed the limits of the world’s most powerful miltary as it faces a booming pirate economy in a treacherous patch of international waters. … While surveillance aircraft kept watch on the pirates and their captive, the Navy task force that had steamed more than 300 miles to go to the captain’s aid showed no sign of confronting the pirates.”

To which the U.S.N. now has responded, in effect: Oh, yeah?


There will always be those who think self-defense entirely too hasty a concept. To quote Vice President Noli de Castro of the Philippines during this ordeal, “any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and cooperation of other countries.” Like Sudan, whose government is the source of the genocide in Darfur? Or maybe the non-government of Somalia, the pirates’ haven?

If the UN had been consulted, doubtless its “Security” Council would still be debating, deliberating and generally delaying as part of a years-long process. Much as it has dealt with the massacres still proceeding in Darfur. Or rather not dealt with them.

Thank you, Mr. Vice President of the Philippines, but some of us would just as soon consult with the U.S. Navy. It responds. With dispatch.

Other foreign officials echoed the Philippine vice president’s advice, saying it’s unlikely that American action in this satisfying instance will discourage pirates off the Horn of Africa. Well, we know of three pirates who have been decidedly discouraged. They should no longer be a problem for ship traffic.


If this doesn’t teach these brigands not to mess with the United States of America, nothing will.

And because nothing may, let’s look to that most reliable guide to the future for an example to follow: the past. In the infancy of this Republic, a young United States of America followed the lead of European powers and routinely paid tribute to the pirates operating along the Barbary Coast out of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli and Tunis. Piracy was their trade, the same one now flourishing off the African coast.

But by 1803 a new American president – Thomas Jefferson – had had enough. Though he was a man of peace who proposed to economize on the country’s defenses, he ordered a naval squadron to the shores of Tripoli to resolve this little matter. Forcefully.

That’s just what Lieut. Stephen Decatur and his Marines proceeded to do, imposing a blockade on the pirates’ home port, and eventually a series of formal peace treaties on all these rogue states. End of piracy. At least in that time and place.

Mr. Jefferson’s is a precedent worth following. And a tradition worth reviving.


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