Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Ripped from the headlines, and all that. Ironically, this past weekend I just finished reading Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas, by John Burnett, and I was planning to write a piece on it for this Saturday.

Most of the questions everyone is asking today are answered in Burnett's book. How could barefoot third-world loonies in rickety boats take on a modern supertanker? First off, they aren't using rickety boats anymore, they're using ocean racing boats with 800 hp. motors. Secondly, when fully laden, the fantail of a tanker is only 12 to 15 feet above the water, which makes it fairly easily climbed by a barefoot guy with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. (Provided you have the callouses, it's always easier to climb barefoot.)

Why don't these tankers carry guns and arm their crewmen? In most ports of call, civilian gun ownership is a serious crime that leads to long prison terms; the tankers themselves are basically giant Zippo lighters waiting for an excuse to go up; and probably most importantly, the shipping companies don't trust their own crewmen, as the Chinese organized crime syndicates have proven singularly adept at planting "inside" men on the crews of ships they plan to raid or hijack. Standard defensive doctrine is try to make a castle of the ship's bridge and living quarters; all it takes is one man who "forgets" to lock one hatch and it's back to the fallback doctrine of acting like a pizza delivery driver and giving the pirates whatever they want, in hopes they'll be satisfied and go away. Of course, if what the pirates want to do is to kill the entire crew and steal the ship — which is something that does happen with depressing frequency — well, then, you're pretty much screwed.

Interestingly, both the Israelis and the Russians, who tend to use ships crewed only with Israelis or Russians, are widely believed to carry sizable caches of small arms on their ships, but few port officials have the temerity to ask whether this is true. In any case the question is moot, as Israeli and Russian ships rarely suffer from pirate attacks: it seems to have something to do with the fact that the bloated, bullet-riddled carcasses of those who try it tend to start washing up on the local beach a few days later...

Why not hire some private security outfit like Blackwater? Yes, such outfits exist, but they're outlandishly expensive and few shoreside people seem to appreciate just how many tankers and freighters are out there at any given moment, or the impossibility of protecting them all. Besides, no private security company wants to take the responsibility for pulling the trigger and possibly causing the next Exxon Valdez.

Why doesn't the U.S. Navy do something?

Ah, yes, there's the question. What ended piracy the last time around was the combined actions of the British, French, and American navies, and it didn't end until the early 19th century. (If this last point causes cognitive dissonance for you, go read about Stephen Decatur and the Barbary Wars. That's where the line about "the shores of Tripoli" comes from in the Marine Corps Hymn.) Now, with the disappearance of the last vestiges of the old colonialist and imperialist systems, many people have returned to their traditional, lucrative, time-honored, and in many cases family businesses: piracy, robbery, slavery, and murder.

I was thinking of calling the piece, "In Praise of Imperialism."

What do you think? Does this seem like something worth developing further?