Arr, me Hearties…

Piracy has been in the news a lot recently, mainly concerning blokes in Somalia armed with AK47s running around attacking cargo ships. However, as some regular readers of this blog (if such there are) may be able to guess from the subtle hints I regularly drop in, the pirate news I have been most interested in recently concerns Assassin’s Creed, and the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This is the first AAA game that I’ve ever heard of set in the ‘golden age of piracy’, and so I thought a post on this period of time might be in order. Plus, I think a 200th post deserves a cool topic.

When people think of piracy, the mental image conjured up is always of Caribbean piracy during these days; swashbuckling men in fancy hats & coats, swanning around in large ships with flintlock pistols, cannons and oversized cojones. Captain Jack Sparrow, basically. Specifically, they refer to the situation in and around the Caribbean from around 1650 to the early 1800s, peaking during the first 30 years of the 18th century. These were the days of colonial wars in this area; 200 years earlier the Spanish-sponsored Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World and Spain, which was at the time the richest and most powerful nation on earth, smelt an opportunity. Newly unified into one nation after pushing out the Moors and uniting the powerful crowns of Aragon and Castile through marriage, 16th century Spain was finally able to utilise the great wealth that centuries of war had been unable to use productively, and swept across the Atlantic (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world; theirs was the first Empire upon which ‘the sun never set’) armed to the teeth. The New World offered them vast untapped resources of gold and silver (among other things) that the local tribes, had not extracted; these tribes were also lacking in gunpowder, and were totally incapable of dealing with the Spanish onslaught that followed. Even small raiding parties were able to conquer vast swathes of land, and Spain pillaged, raped and murdered its way across the land in a fashion eerily preminiscient of the ‘rush for Africa’ that would follow a few hundred years later. America was rich, it was untapped, it was (relatively, compared to, say, India) close enough to be accessible, and Spain got there first. Seemed like a great deal at the time.

However, cut to a couple of hundred years later, and Spain was in trouble. The ‘Spanish Golden Age’ was on the wane, and Spain found itself at near-constant war, either with France or from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose Barbary pirates (the first time piracy enters this story) would frequently trouble Spain’s coastal possessions. In the colonies, things were just as bad; Britain and France had established their own empires in North America and fought frequently, if not with each other, with Spain for its colonies in Florida and Central America, constantly attempting land grabs in and around the Caribbean area. Spain simply did not have the ability to maintain a military presence across such a vast area, especially when a succession war started and all parties started fighting over the future of Spain as a country and an empire, making the game of ‘who’s on whose side’ even more complicated. The whole area turned into one chaotic mess of sporadic fighting, where law was impossible to enforce,towns were frequentl either destroyed or changed hands, and honest trade such as farming became an unreliable source of income when your crops kept getting burnt. However, at the same time, there were still lots of goodies being sent around all over the place for trade purposes so the various  countries involved in the conflict could make some money out of the whole mess, wherever possible. So, let’s have a sit rep; we have large amounts of very valuable goods being shipped all over the Caribbean & the high seas, frequently alone since all powers had so few ships to spare for escorts, nobody is able to reliably enforce the law and we have a lot of men unable to make a living from practicing an honest trade. Rocking up in a large ship and stealing everything has never seemed such a productive strategy, particularly when some towns turned lawless and became pirate ports.

Interestingly, all the colonial powers at one time or another made some acts of piracy legal; ‘privateers’ were sailors (such as Sir Francis Drake) employed by a country to ride around all over the place and disrupt other countries’ trade. All the other nations, of course, considered them pirates and put ‘dead or alive’ prices on their heads, but these people are pretty boring when compared to some of the genuine pirates who terrorised the Caribbean. In many ways, pirates were the first professional celebrities; reasoning that the whole ‘piracy’ business would be a lot easier if everyone would just shit themselves upon sight of them and hand over all the gold without a fight, they put a lot of effort into building up their reputations so that everyone knew who they are. This is one of the reasons why pirates are so famous today, that and the fact that they were simultaneously mental and amazingly charismatic. Consider Blackbeard, probably the most famous real-life pirate and a man who spread rumours about satanic powers and would stick flaming sticks in his beard so he smoked like a demon. Consider Captain John Phillips, whose version of the pirate code (because even criminals have honour of a sort; Phillips’ is one of just four surviving) included an article stating that any man who kept a secret from the rest of the crew was to be marooned on a desert island with nothing but a bottle of water, a pistol, gunpowder and shot. Just to let everyone know who’s boss. And what about Charles Vane, a certified arsehole even by piratical standards whose three-year career netted him the equivalent of around two and a half million US Dollars, which is made doubly impressive by the fact that he never lead a ship with more than twelve guns. For a more expanded (and rather hilarious) look at a few pirates and their stories, I refer you here.

After 1730, the age of the pirates was largely over; the Royal Navy in particular was exerting far more control over the seas and ports, and small pirate vessels were unable to sustain a living. The trade attempted to move overseas, but proved unsustainable in other colonies such as India. The law was finally organised enough to catch up with pirates, and they retreated back into history, leaving only their fearsome reputation and charisma behind. Pirates as we in the west think of them were many things; brave, violent, aggressive, borderline mental, and not the kind of people you’d want to invite to dinner. But one thing that they undoubtedly were, and always will be, is effortlessly, earth-shatteringly cool.

The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.