Friday, April 10, 2009

Piracy on the High Seas

Some serious ideas on reducing piracy - but also some philosophy from "The Pirates of Penzance". W.S. Gilbert's words are over a century old, but he distills the essence of the world's reaction to piracy so far.


It is admirable that the American crew of the Alabama resisted the pirates. I hope and pray the brave and dutiful Capt. Richard Phillips survives the ordeal and that the pirates and their leaders face justice.

The economics for the shipping companies and their insurers and consultants and go-betweens in paying ransom is clear. Why lose a $100,000,000 ship and cargo over a mere $5,000,000 ransom? Why should the consultants, who earn large fees for each successful "rescue" suggest a more forceful solution that might greatly reduce piracy instead of encouraging it?


Back in 1904, when an American, Ion Perdicaris, was held ransom by a bandit named Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a short threat: "We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead". He did not have to invade Morocco to get action, what he did was to "Speak softly and carry a big stick".

We need to reinstate the great old American slogan: “Millions for defense, not a penny for tribute”.


Although the Capt. and crew of the Alabama appear to be an exception, it seems our political and even military leaders have become overly intellectual - "paralysis by analysis". In Penzance, the main character introduces himself:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral, ...

I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse...

I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

Yet, he recognizes he has a lot to learn about the military:

... when I know what is meant by 'mamelon' and 'ravelin',
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by 'commissariat',

When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery -
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee...

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General....


Our reaction to the pirates shows too much understanding of the plight of their people in Somalia. Indeed they are very poor and have no effecive government. The proceeds of piracy are about all they have to live on. Perhaps our recognition of that explains why the international community has been so timid in reacting to the growing piracy epidemic.

In Penzance, the constabulary is assigned to counter the pirates. They too are overly analytical and caught up in soft-hearted sympathy for victimhood. Like too many leaders, they reject the idea the western democracies could become the "world's policemen". The constabulary in Penzance lament the sad situation of law enforcement when the felon is an ordinary human being like themselves as they prepare to do battle with the pirates:

When a felon's not engaged in his employment,
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's.

Our feelings we with difficulty smother
When constabulary duty's to be done.
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling
When the cut-throat isn't occupied in crime,
He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling
And listen to the merry village chime.

When the coster's finished jumping on his mother,
He loves to lie a-basking in the sun.
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.


It seems the shipping company consultants and experts are like dermatologists. They are better off when the patient gets a bit better but doesn't get cured, and they collect their fees so long as he does not die.

In Penzance, the constabulary prepares to go into a battle they fear:

Though in body and in mind we are timidly inclined,
And anything but blind to the danger that's behind,
Yet, when the danger's near, we manage to appear
As insensible to fear as anybody here...

The constabulary, like so many diplomats in their glory, pose and promise to go "forward on the foe!" but they march around the stage, quivering in fear, and for a long time, they don't go.


Short-term: In the short-term we need to place armed guards on at least one out of every five US- flagged ships as they enter pirate-infested waters. The 18 US Navy guards who were assigned to the Alabama a day ago as it steamed to its destination in Kenya are an example. Perhaps the armed guards should be active-duty Navy men and women, but, over the longer term, this task would be perfect for private security firms.

All ships traveling in troubled waters should at least get some animated mannikins dressed in Navy uniforms that could be set at the rails of the ship so the pirates won't know which ships actually have armed guards aboard and which do not.

Congress must do their part and pass laws that authorize and require US-flagged ships to have armed guards and to hold the guards (and private companies if this work gets contracted out) personally not responsible for actions taken within the scope of their employment.

Middle-Term: We need laws that prevent payment of ransom to pirates. Any shipping company that pays ransom is endangering all other ships that must travel through that area, in return for a short-term financial advantage. Congress must pass a law forbidding any US-based shipping company from paying ransom. Any company that retrieves a ship by paying ransom should be forced to surrrender that ship and it should be resold to the highest bidder, with the US Taxpayers getting the proceeds.

I do not know if the laws of the sea would allow it, but it would be nice if the US Navy seized a few non-US-flagged ransomed ships and escorted them to neutral ports that would serve as two-year "penalty boxes". That would discourage foreign-based shipping companies from paying ransoms.

We should also consider direct air attacks on the "mother ships" the pirates use to launch their small boats that carry the attacking pirates. If satellite imagery proves a pirate attack was launched from a given mother ship, or that the ransom payment was delivered to that ship, it should be fair game. The crew of the mother ship should be warned to leave in their small boats, the ship should be destroyed, and the pirates should be picked up and put on trial.

Long-Term: With GPS and satellite communications and other modern technology, there is no need for human crews to be on ships while they are on the open seas. The ships could be adapted to travel on any preset course, using remote control via satellite communications.

Crews are certainly required when ships are in port and in crowded waters near ports. They could be removed by helicopter when in the open seas near pirate-infested waters and returned as the ship neared a port area.

If pirates boarded a remote-controlled ship, it would continue on course or be re-directed to facilitate intervention by the US Navy. If the pirates attempted to manually steer the ship to a pirate port, the engines could be disabled via remote control.

Ships could also be equipped with remote-controlled devices that would release tear gas or gas that would incapacitate any pirate crews that boarded them. That could help the US Navy recapture the ships without gunfire.

Ira Glickstein


grapeguy said...

You have no mention of people. You know, the hostages.It is fairly easy to give money to pirates to get back your ship. If you continue to pay ransoms, there is no future .The question I see here is whether we should ever pay any ransom for any hostage. The problem is that somewhere along the line, a hostage that is "more important" than another hostage will be freed by paying the ransom. These exceptions to the solution will make the strategy fail.

JohnS said...

Ira, I agree with much of what you have said, however, the political climate today precludes us taking appropriate action. Comparing Teddy Roosevelt’s expression, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” is in no way analogous to circumstances today. In the first place, military commanders are not free to take necessary action. They are restricted in every case by several factors. By the white house and the state department supervising every minute decision, by “rules of engagement” laid down by people far from dangers, by political correctness and the media closely observing American forces, American forces only, on the oft chance that excessive force was or will be used. The expression, “an eye for an eye” doesn’t exist today. Instead, our enemies can commit any level of atrocity they chose without criticism from the media while American military actions are observed with a strong magnifying glass. If it can be found that a military person, even a low ranking person is observed committing an apparent wrongful act, it is reflected all the way to the white house as if the President could watch and personally control each and every person in the military. Yes, those persons should be punished, but their actions should not handcuff our military leaders.
Wars were fought differently in Teddy Roosevelt’s day through WWII. The rules then were to use whatever force necessary to take the day. The Military tried to limit collateral damage but it was not a great concern. The goal was to win! We bombed German cities to eliminate armament factories. The collateral damage was horrendous, BUT, I was with the troops that took the Dachau concentration camp and I have no sympathy! That was the way we fought wars – we fought to win - the sooner the better. Not today.
I personally believe that we should leave policing the world to the United Nations, even if they won’t do a good job but learn from Teddy. If you fool with us, it is going to be too painful to contemplate and carry that threat out. The UN and other nations can wring their hands all they want, we protect our people! If we destroy the mother ships and the Somalia ports the ships sail from we would only have to do it once. However, we won’t.
Ira, even you are discussing tactics. Give the military a free hand, under the Geneva Conventions, and they will get it done.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks grapeguy for joining our conversation, and John for adding your wisdom again.

I would say we should never pay ransom. Not for the Pope or the President or ... even me if I ever get taken hostage.

As you point out, making any exceptions will cause the strategy to fail and up the ante for who is taken hostage.


I did not realize you, John, were old enough to have been with the troops that took the Dachau concentration camp. You say that based on that experience you have "no sympathy!" [presumably refering to the German people who were unfortunate enough to be fodder for the inevitable horrendous collateral damage when we bombed German cities to eliminate armament factories].

Of course you do have great sympathy for innocent people, but you know that fighting wars to win as quickly as practial may diminish the overall suffering. It seems that since WWII we tend to stretch things out interminably and cause more suffering. Like the guy who had to cut his dog's tail off and was so "sympathetic" he cut only an inch off, each week!

You are right, it is the 24/7 media that is responsible, I believe, for our current paralysis by analysis.

Perhaps we should leave policing the world to the UN as you suggest. It will be tough enough to police the parts of the world where American citizens and interests are under threat. Let other countries protect their own (as the French did yesterday in rescuing some people from a sailboat and where one hostage died). Perhaps we need bilateral agreements with countries that protect their own and are willing to protect our citizens and our intereests.

Ira Glickstein

PS to grapeguy please drop me an email at and let us know who you are. Perhaps you would like to be a regular here?

JohnS said...

Just an added comment re Dachau. The camp was located within a developed area. There is no way that the locals did not know. They were complacent.
Just as we are on our march to socialism/fascism.
I might add the Germans did a job on England without a lot of regret.