Summary: Today we review a book that held special appeal to the Marine Special Operations Command’s (MarSoc’s) Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU) because the it tells of a covert expedition — what today we’d call unconventional warfare. Nothing is truly new in war, as this was the Marine Corps expedition to the shores of Tripoli in 1805.
The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 by Richard Zacks (2005)
Reviewed by Andrew L Crabb. Originally published as “The Rough Math of Surrogate Warfare” in the Marine Corps Gazette of November 2007. Republished here with their generous permission.
State-sponsored transnational threats range freely across large swaths of ungoverned spaces, utilizing terror to intimidate the governments of Old Europe. Rogue governments and the illegally armed groups they sponsor extort payments, enslave, persecute innocents, and generally wreak havoc throughout the surrounding region. After its own citizens are taken hostage, one country, the United States, stands up to stop this injustice through force of arms. After being frustrated by conventional forces’ lack of progress, a small covert element infiltrates into the area of operations, enlists the help of local forces, and achieves stunning success. While this scenario could easily be mistaken for a sound bite from the Cable News Network, in fact these are just some of the details from the extraordinary book, The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805.
Of course, the story resonates with every Marine because it is the backdrop for the line, “. . . to the shores of Tripoli,” in the “Marines’ Hymn.” The book held special appeal to our unit, the Marine Special Operations Command’s (MarSoc’s) Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU) because the leadership of the covert expedition undertook what would be called, in today’s Department of Defense (DoD)speak, unconventional warfare. Unconventional warfare is defined in Joint Publication 1-02, DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, as “military and para-military operations, normally of long-duration, through, with or by indigenous or surrogate forces” for the purposes of achieving our own national objectives. It is one of the capabilities being developed today at the MarSoc. The expedition of 1805 was by definition a classic unconventional warfare operation. While most Marines are vaguely aware of the extreme dangers and hardships of that expedition, the vast majority of Marines aren’t taught the unsettling facts that eventually clouded the heroic success of our forces.