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  • Fighting a War on Terror or, “Our Country, Right or Wrong!”
  • Gene Allen Smith (bio)
Robert J. Allison. Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779–1820. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006. viii + 255pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

The world as Americans knew it changed on September 11, 2001. Since then Americans have felt anxious, scared, and violated, as they have tried to understand what happened and who was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. During the blur of days and weeks that followed, the picture that emerged showed Islamic extremists willing to sacrifice their lives to strike against the influence of the United States and the west. Once Americans focused on Islamic terrorists as the enemy responsible for 9/11, all Muslims in the United States thereafter became suspects; news accounts recorded that mosques across the United States had suffered defilement as some attempted to impose retribution for the outrage. Yet as events seemed to speed out of control, U.S. leaders and intelligence agencies identified Osama bin Laden, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as the predominant sponsors of terror and of the violence engulfing the world. The George Bush administration manipulated intelligence to convince Americans that the United States needed to go to war to prevent these "evil" Islamic states from using weapons of mass destruction against the Christian west. Thus, the United States declared war on terror, and Americans initially displayed overwhelming support to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq; democracy presumably would result in stable regimes that practiced equality and religious tolerance.

Once U.S. troops embarked for the Middle East, commentators, pundits, critics, and historians tried to find meaning in the American conflict against Islam. Some charged that the Barbary Wars (the Tripolitan War 1801–05 and the Algerine War 1815–16) provided evidence of long-standing Islamic hostility for the Christian United States. Some maintained that religion had stimulated the previous conflict with the North African states, with the Barbary powers becoming holy warriors—or eighteenth- and nineteenth-century terrorists—fighting a jihad against the Stars and Stripes. Although these pirates enslaved, [End Page 358] extorted, and ransomed Christians, recently published books about the Barbary conflict tell us much more about current attitudes than about the reality of the early American republic. Fortunately, Robert Allison's biography of Stephen Decatur does not contribute to this base of misinformation.1

Building on his earlier study of America's encounter with the Barbary States of North Africa from 1776 to 1815, Allison reveals the private and public life of the naval hero Stephen Decatur, who emerged as a nineteenth-century American icon because of his exploits against the Barbary pirates and against the British during the War of 1812.2 Leading men to victory in Tripoli, the War of 1812, and the Algerian War of 1815, Decatur created an enduring legend of bravery, celebrated in poetry, song, paintings, as well as in the naming of some twenty-six towns—from Georgia to Illinois to Texas. Yet the story of Decatur that emerges in this biography does not focus exclusively on the exploits of a daring naval officer, but reveals the personal connections of the community of naval officers as well as the nascent culture that developed in this service during the formative years of its existence. These connections and their cultural underpinnings sustained the service during these important early years, but they also laid the groundwork for dissension and conflict within the navy.

Stephen Decatur joined the Navy in April 1798, when the U.S. Congress created the Navy Department and voted money to expand the fleet in response to French depredations in the Caribbean. President John Adams signed a midshipman's warrant for Decatur, and the aspiring officer joined Captain John Barry's frigate United States. Following in familiar steps—his grandfather had been a lieutenant in the French navy, and his father had commanded privateers during the American War for Independence and would command naval vessels during the Quasi-War against France—young Decatur entered a new community that embodied a world within itself. Had the Navy Department rigidly enforced...


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