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Why Somali Pirates Consider the U.S. Navy a Paper Tiger

Without question, the main joy of teaching for the military is the students. When I taught undergraduates, students would talk in class but few would say anything: They’d argue theory, but would have few facts and even less life experience to back up their arguments. Today’s servicemen and women are different. They have accrued a lifetime of experience in just a few years. Heading off to eat with them at a DFAC (dining facility) at North Fort Hood, or in the wardroom of a U.S. navy carrier is about as valuable a learning experience as one can get.

I’m just off the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is currently heading across the Pacific to support our troops in far hotter waters. One of the more interesting conversations I had was with an officer who had, in an earlier deployment, spent a good deal of time doing anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. He said his ship once came across a pirate “mother ship” apparently dead in the water. It was not in imminent danger, however, nor was the ship itself engaged in piracy—that was the job of the small boats which launched from the mother ship. As the cruiser hovered nearby, the pirates threw over the side a life preserver with a message attached to it. The cruiser grabbed the life-preserver, and opened the attached plastic bag with the message in it. It read, in perfect English, “Unless you’re going to give us booze, women, and money, why don’t you just get the f—k away from here?” And, because of U.S. rules of engagement, that is exactly what we did.

It is no surprise that piracy thrives when the pirates know our rules of engagement and know they have little to fear for their actions. Today, our sailors are instructed to consider piracy a matter for the courts rather than simply a military matter. As soon as the Oval Office and Pentagon allow our sailors to truly crackdown on piracy and destroy both the ships that enable it and the properties on shore built with its proceeds, its curse will continue to hamper international shipping. The alternative is simply a very expensive pageant and, frankly, our servicemen and women deserve far better than spending holidays and kids’ birthdays away from their families simply to sit off the coast of Africa in a show of force which the pirates no longer take seriously.


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