A tyrant who rules a Muslim nation raids shipping, takes hostages and demands immediate ransom — plus payments to keep him from taking more hostages in the future.
European governments toady to the ruler, preferring to pay him off and do business rather than go to the effort to take him out even though they have enough military power to do so.
After American hostages are taken and war declared, a brilliant and creative maverick U.S. officer pushes a daring plan to free the captives.
The president authorizes a deniable mission to rescue the hostages and install a friendly government in the hostile Muslim land.
A sleazy French agent learns of the mission and blows the surprise by informing the dictator.
An American diplomat whose marriage keeps him well-connected scorns the idea that a government friendly to America can be established — or that a military mission can succeed — so he sets about to negotiate appeasement and containment.
The American agent eventually is left hanging by his own government even after a spectacular military success.
The Americans eventually take the lead in stopping nation-sponsored piracy and kidnapping in the Mediterranean, while the Europeans maintain safe distance, getting involved only in mopping up and peace negotiations.
Tomorrow's headlines? The next Tom Clancy thriller? You can't rule either option out, but proving that some things never change, these are the elements of America's first declared war: that of Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates.
And in the hands of Richard Zacks — whose last book, the superb, true, sea-going adventure "Pirate Hunter," will convince you that Captain Kidd was a framed hero, not a murderous buccaneer — the story is as exciting as any thriller.
"The Pirate Coast" is, for the most part, the story of Richard Eaton, whose exploits put "the shores of Tripoli" into the Marine Hymn. An idealistic former Army officer, Revolutionary War veteran and consul to Tripoli, Eaton was offended by his nation's kowtowing to the Barbary Pirates' extortion in order to do business in the Mediterranean.
When William Bainbridge, a captain who still holds the U.S. Navy's record for cowardice (he surrendered not one, but two ships with hardly a shot being fired), embarrassingly runs the warship Philadelphia aground in Tripoli Bay, he and his crew of more than 300 are held hostage for ransom.
Eaton lobbies Jefferson for the chance to do something about it. After months of selling his plan, Eaton has to spend more months seeking the exiled Prince Hamet and mounting a mission to install him on his brother's throne in Tripoli.
In the meantime, the top diplomat in the region — Tobias Lear, married for the second time to a niece of George Washington after outliving the first one — does everything he can to undercut the mission. Jefferson, the revolutionary with a streak of pacifism and a mistrust of standing armies, listens to Lear.
Meanwhile, Eaton bulls ahead with his mission against all odds. Along with eight U.S. Marines, he gathers a rag-tag army pledged to Hamet. Through sheer willpower, Eaton keeps them together during a brutal 500-mile journey across the Libyan desert.
Just as ultimate military success is in his reach, however, Lear — with Jefferson's consent — pulls it from his grasp, and not without a fair amount of treachery.
Despite feeling betrayed and indignant over how Hamet and the Arabs, who fought for their liberty, were duped, Eaton returned home to find himself feted as the toast of the nation. However, he just couldn't resist using his new platform to take out after Jefferson and expose the truth about the Tripoli mission and Jefferson's role — whether by design or omission — in its seedier side.
"The Pirate Coast" is a superb historical narrative with flawed heroes, a near-demigod with feet of clay, cynics who scoff at the bravery of their betters and ordinary people spurred to do great things, only to be left in the lurch.
True-life sea-going adventure stories have made a literary resurgence of late, and authors like Zacks are the reason why.
Lambert's focus is how the war fit into the philosophical context of the American Revolution, from Washington's being forced to negotiate from a position of weakness with a new nation not ready for war but needing trade to James Madison's finally letting Stephen Decatur loose on the pirates 30 years later (and making the war hero responsible for peace talks this time).
While Zacks' book obviously has more narrative drive and sufficient historical context for most readers to get the big picture, Lambert does a nice job of filling in the beginnings and end of America's first war and how fighting it set precedents for the fledgling nation.