Sunday, February 18, 2007

My Country, Wrong or Wronger

Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, by Robert J. Allison

Among the spate of recent Decatur biographies, this volume stands out. Decatur's biography is swashbuckling stuff, to be sure, easy on the merit of the facts to make into a compelling story. But intricately, often subtly, woven into this book is the story of America moving from revolution to a budding empire, from underdog barely surviving in a dangerous world to conqueror, from a nation obsessed with concepts of honor and hot violence to one of commerce and enterprise. Of particular interest in the sad tale of Decatur's ultimate demise by the hand of a fellow officer is the intricate personal politics of the time, that both created the myth of the individual hero on which Decatur's reputation rests and the ascendancy of the organization, in this case the United States Navy, as having life and supremacy over the mere invididual. On this last matter, the often-overlooked contributions of Decatur towards professionalizing the Navy, assuring its subservience to civilian control -- this at a time when rumors of military coups abounded, and when the great fear of a standing Navy was its potential role in toppling the Republic -- and helping guide the administration of the service are presented ably by the author. (One cute story is that of the original 'pork barrel' politics and corrupt defense contractors -- who supplied bad pg meat from the interior of the country as part of a deal to help provide multi-state political support for the blue-water Navy.)

Of particular current interest is the treatment of Decatur's involvement with the Tripolitan states -- America's first wars with Islamic states, from 1803 to 1815. The role of Decatur in the Navy's expeditions against what are now Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia are essential in understanding the historical context of the use of American force in that region, as are the political and economic currents that produced the reasons for our involvement.

The words for which Decatur is dimly remembered by the general population -- frequently misquoted as 'My Country, right or wrong!' were more precisely, a toast: 'In her intercourse with foreign natons, may she always be right; and always successful, right or wrong.' Decatur uttered these words in the context of the nearly-disastrous War of 1812, which saw the country closely divided over its declaration, then invaded, rent by political decisions concerning the conduct of the war, and then nearly divided by a late secessionist movement that would have sought a separate peace. Decatur was no polished orator, and his intention in the context of his experience seems to have been to make the case that, it being far easier to deal with the world from a position of victory and superiority, there is no substitution for preparedness and planning. The author puts this sobriquet in further relief by quoting the opposing contemporary viewpoint, in the person of John Quincy Adams, then an experienced diplomat some years away from the Presidency, who wrote to his father, the former President, "I cannot ask of Heaven success, even for my country, in a cause where she should be in the wrong. I disclaim as unsound all patriotism incompatible with the principles of eternal justice. But the truth is that the American union, while united, may be certain of success in every rightful cause, and may if it pleases never have any but a rifghtful cause to maintain." The debate between these two views of our national conduct and security continues to this day, of course.

The ugly irony of Decatur's death by duel with a fellow officer over a matter of "honor" was that it was no such thing, involving no substantial issue of "right or wrong" but merely the perceived issues of status and career. It is a sad rhyme that such a distinguished American's ability to contribute to our national defense and conversation about the nature of security in a free Republic came to a violent and wholly unnecessary end.