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Pirates -- Why We May Love the Legend But Should Hate the Real Thing

Arrgh… while Johnny Depp reprises his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," the fourth film in a blockbuster franchise that has already grossed over $2.7 billion, it’s interesting to compare pop culture’s love for the pirate legend with our historic distaste for real ones.

Even President Obama couldn’t resist joking at a DNC event in Boston this week about having to deal with pirates -- despite the inconvenient truth that they killed four American hostages earlier this year.

Pirates have been around since ocean commerce began in Ancient Greek and Roman times. Julius Caesar chased down and crucified his former captors.

Piracy’s "Golden Age" was in the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries, renown for men like Edward Teach, aka "Blackbeard," and John Rackham, aka "Calico Jack," who gave us the Jolly Roger flag. Pirates often met violent deaths -- Blackbeard was killed in a melee with Royal Navy sailors off North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1718, while fellow Englishman Calico Jack was hanged in Jamaica two years later.

So how did these despised souls become the stuff of legend?

Simple -- their adventures in tropical locales led to flattering portrayals by British countrymen generations later.

In the 1880s, Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote "Treasure Island," a tale of buried gold, treasure maps, and Long John Silver -- the peg-legged bandit with a pet parrot.

Twenty years later, another Scottish writer, J.M. Barrie, created Peter Pan, around whom he centered a stage play and novel. While in Neverland, Pan’s foil was the menacing Captain Hook.

Walt Disney’s film adaptations of both classics in the 1950’s spurred Caribbean pirates into even wider prominence.
America’s fascination with them as tough opportunists crossed over into sports – baseball’s Pittsburgh Alleghenies were renamed the Pirates in 1891 after signing a second baseman from the Philadelphia Athletics.

The NFL’s Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers clashed in America’s most watched sporting event of 2003 – Super Bowl XXXVII. Blackbeard would have blushed.

Steam engines allowed 19th century navies to beat piracy in the Americas. Though like other bad actors in our history -- gunslingers in the Wild Wild West and bootleggers during Prohibition, pirates of the Caribbean became enshrined in our cultural folklore.

However, while modern pirates share the same penchant for at-sea violence as marauders here centuries ago, they share little else in common.

For starters, they are half-a-world away -- mostly young Somalis operating in over a million square miles of the Indian Ocean. Many others are Indonesians, raiding ships passing through the 500-mile Straits of Malacca near Singapore, a strategic chokepoint between Asia and Europe.

Modern tactics are more menacing -- rather than raiding ships for treasures like Spanish Gold, today’s pirates make money off hostages. Almost 600 mariners are currently being held, mostly onboard dozens of captured ships. Ransoms are in the multi-million dollar range, at times resulting in death when talks break down. 

In February, Somali pirates killed four Americans after capturing their yacht Quest off Oman, a tragedy that unfolded as Navy destroyer USS Sterett trailed close behind.

Eight of 15 pirates facing civilian trial in Norfolk, Virginia in that case have already worked out plea agreements, while others will have hearings next week.

Though technology beat pirates here, there has been no such game changer overseas. Operating from speedboats and larger mother ships, equipped with AK-47s and rocket launchers, today’s bandits are more agile.

Armed merchant ships and other self-defense mechanisms have worked in some cases, though haven’t been universally applied.

The 25-nation Task Force-151 based out of Bahrain – currently led by the Singaporean Navy, does its best at counter-piracy operations, though doesn’t have enough ships to be everywhere at once.

After visiting Somalia and Kenya this month, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a Commander in the Navy Reserve, argued for expanded rules of engagement to attack pirates at sea, while supporting military aid to Somali forces for retaking areas from pirates on land.

Some experts like retired Navy Captain Gordan Van Hook, now with Maersk Lines, have suggested sea basing – with law enforcement authorities operating from barges and other platforms off the lawless Horn of Africa to help contain pirates in their few known havens.

Today’s legal framework also needs attention -- captured pirates are routinely disarmed and set free as many countries fear asylum seekers if prosecutions fall through.

Whatever solutions can stop the estimated $12 billion annual losses, they will be welcomed by a frustrated shipping industry, consumers who must pay higher prices, and taxpayers who fund naval missions. 

Perhaps the Navy’s new on-line war game, or emerging laser technology will help yield the winning answers?

Once today’s pirates are finally tossed into the dustbin of history -- who knows, maybe somebody will even make a nice movie about them in a couple hundred years?

J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington, D.C. think tanks and retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2009 as the Pentagon's spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. For more info, visit www.gordoncohenstrategies.com.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.