Blogs > Cliopatria > Pipes' Privateers?

Feb 23, 2005 6:17 am

Pipes' Privateers?

Oh, the year was 1778
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
A letter of marque come from the king,
To the scummiest vessel I'd ever seen,
God damn them all!
I was told we'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns-shed no tears
Now I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers.
--"Barrett's Privateers," Stan Rogers, 1977
Sometimes you encounter an idea so mind-shockingly stupid....
Letters of marque, updated: For many centuries, governments lacking the means to hunt down pirates provided"letters of marque" to private ship owners, commissioning them to take down the pirates and take a portion of the profits. (Click here for some examples.) The concept is known as privateering; it was written in the U.S. Constitution ("The Congress shall have Power … To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal"), where it remains in force to the present. Should this idea be revived in the age of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists?
In his defense this is a"thinking out loud" piece, in which he assigns homework to the rest of the blogosphere. It's not a serious suggestion, like"threat profiling [which] may entail bothersome or offensive measures" up to but not including (yet) internment.
Oh, Elcid Barrett cried the town,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
For twenty brave men all fishermen who
would make for him the Antelope's crew (Chorus)
Privateering -- licensing private individuals to carry out pirate attacks (not defend from them, as Pipes has it) -- was often effective, relatively safe, a cheap and easy way of crippling the economy of an enemy nation in time of war. It was a very prominent feature of 18th century Atlantic wars. But its time has come and gone, you can be sure. At least, I hope so....
The Antelope sloop was a sickening sight,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
She'd a list to the port and her sails in rags
And the cook in scuppers with the staggers and the jags (Chorus)
I suppose that Pipes is considering not economic warfare, but something more akin to the filibusters which carried out unauthorized but very effective destabilizing attacks on Latin American and Caribbean governments. The purpose of Pipes' Privateers would be, I'm guessing, to operate private counter-terrorism operations. OK, but why would they? Letters of Marque were profit-making licenses: privateers didn't attack warships or break blockades, but seized and sold cargoes. It's probably true that the more substantial terrorist networks have substantial assets, some of them even in seizable form; perhaps info-warfare privateers could reroute bank accounts and intercept money laundering transactions, as long as they were allowed to keep the proceeds [Thanks, Ralph!] (and didn't foul up and take legitimate civilian or, heaven forfend, corporate funds). Of course, we'd also have to get permission from other countries to have our companies seize assets from their banks and soil, since most of this wealth isn't on the high seas anymore. But would seizing their assets be a fundamental blow to their operations and, more importantly, to the radical movements which justify terrorist operations? Probably not. In fact, thinking that it would is precisely the kind of"law enforcement" -- anti-Organized Crime, anti-druglord -- mentality which Pipes rejects.
On the King's birthday we put to sea,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
We were 91 days to Montego Bay
Pumping like madmen all the way (Chorus)
No, to be effective war tools, Pipes Privateers need to disrupt the fundamental economy and resources of radical terror supporters. The"economy" which fuels these networks includes charitable donations: are the privateers going to go after all Islamic charities, or just those someone deems"Islamist"? Funds also come from the oil-rich sheikdoms: are the privateers going to seize oil fields, and if so, whose? And how are they going to hold them against the organized force of the nations involved? Or are they just going to take oil tankers, like real old-fashioned pirates? (and how are they not going to tick off the US-based multinational corporations which contracted those deliveries?)
On the 96th day we sailed again,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
When a bloody great Yankee hove in sight
With our cracked four pounders we made to fight (Chorus)
Maybe he had something more"Delta Force"/"A-Team" in mind? Real mercenaries, taking out terrorist installations and leaders -- sometimes indistinguishable from schools and religious leaders, but I'm sure they'll figure it out -- with"bottom-line" efficiency? Why would they? Where's the profit in it? I suppose there could be a broadening of the bounties currently stacked on some of the most valued terroristic heads (though those have been shockingly ineffective so far, perhaps if they came with a"license to kill" more folks would join the fun) and an official target list (with bounties for infrastructure and installation destruction, of course) which Marque'd outfits could draw on.
The Yankee lay low down with gold,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
She was broad and fat and loose in the stays
But to catch her took the Antelope two whole days (Chorus)
Pipes' Privateers would have to work for bounties. If we contracted them up front, and paid them for service rather than for results, they'd be mercenaries, and that's illegal. Under the Geneva Convention, at least, the use of mercenaries instead of acknowledged national forces is a gross violation of the rules of war and the privateers would not have the POW protection of the Conventions (how much that bothers us these days is an open question). In the old days captured privateers were usually held until the end of hostilities and released, but now, unless Geneva applies, illegal combatants can be held in perpetuity. Piracy is illegal, too, of course, as is undeclared warfare. In fact, I'm pretty sure that reviving Letters of Marque and Reprisal would qualify us as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Then at length we stood two cables away,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
Our cracked four pounders made an awful din
But with one fat ball the Yank stove us in (Chorus)
Let's not even get into the question of whether we want to be authorizing corporations (because these Marque'd outfits would have to have some kind of corporate structure to handle finances, and there are already corporations which handle security, logistics, training and manpower so it'd be a small step...) to carry out full-bore military operations. Of course they'd be enjoined against doing any violence on US soil, but once the capacity is developed, how can we be sure the US government would remain the highest bidder for their services? I'm put in mind of one of my favorite dystopias, Robert Heinlein's Friday, in which corporations are more powerful and important than nations, and"proxy war" involves assassinations, bombings, and the occasional nuclear obliteration of a city. As Heinlein points out, capital and information are mobile, while nation-states are sitting ducks: if corporations decide that laws, politics and money aren't working for them, violence is just a matter of cost-benefit analysis. There is a reason that one of the fundamental powers of the state is the monopoly on legal use of force.
The Antelope shook and pitched on her side,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs
And the Maintruck carried off both me legs (Chorus)
I understand Pipes' impulse. There is an unused constitutional mechanism there, one which appeals to privatization, to the desire to ramp up to full-bore war, which sidesteps the messy process of counting casualties or nation-building, which seems to go to the heart of the matter: hit 'em where it hurts! But we're already skirting (or not) law, propriety and morals with our use of contractors for security, intelligence and interrogation. This would take us back to the 18th century in ways we don't want to go.
So here I lay in my 23rd year,
(How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!)
It's been 6 years since we sailed away
And I just made Halifax yesterday
God damn them all!
I was told we'd cruise the seas for American gold
We'd fire no guns-shed no tears
Now I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's Privateers.
Stan Rogers' song is a product of the 1970s, but Rogers himself was so steeped in the history and lore of the Canadian coast that he got almost everything right. Not only is the music hauntingly shanty-like (and his live rendition of it lusty and bold), but he captured -- with satirical twist -- the essence of privateering. See the detailed discussions of the song's background here (with full lyrics), here (with excellent citations), and here (line-by-line discussion).

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More Comments:

jon (Outside the Whale) - 2/28/2005

I'm going to back up Jonathan on this one. I have the lyrics sheet in front of me and its "Elcid Barrett"

David Lion Salmanson - 2/24/2005

So noted. I have it on tape but I don't think it has a lyric sheet included.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2005

And there's violence involved. And actions that would technically be a crime without government authorization. Otherwise, I see your point.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2005

Rise Up Singing is wrong, I'm 99% sure (the liner notes are at home). The name "Elcid" came from a Rogers family friend, according to one of the sites cited at the end of my post.


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/23/2005

Except that Letters of Marques are a government monopoly. Class actions suits are not.

John H. Lederer - 2/23/2005

with contingent fees for the lawyers the modern day equivalent of letters of marque?

David Lion Salmanson - 2/23/2005

According to Rise Up Singing it's Old Syd Barrett. Been singing that song with summer campers for years and years. Great post.

Konrad M Lawson - 2/23/2005

Jonathan, this was a wonderful and highly entertaining posting!

Manan Ahmed - 2/23/2005

Great points, Jonathan. But seeing as how the Minutemen are already in the news; the privateers cannot be far behind - in whatever capacity [keyboard warriors is my educated guess].

However, I got stuck at the very first thing: "is there quantitative evidence to suggest that the terrorists gravitate to the Democratic-dominated states to carry out operations?" Hmm. So, as far as we know, we have had 2 terrorist attacks on NYC. One in OKC. One in Atlanta. What did I miss?