Cop groupies, naval warfare nerds and gas-starved SUV moms around the world all had the same hero last week: the Indian Navy. The Subcontinental squids announced that they had struck the first blow for law’n’order on the high seas by sinking a Somali pirate “mother ship” off Yemen.
Their timing was perfect. The pirates had been looting every ship in the Indian Ocean for weeks with no retaliation. Once again, the Somalis were doin’ it old-school, on the cheap, making the rich countries look weak by facing them down armed with no more than our old friend the RPG.
Then came the news that the impudent bastards’ “mother ship” had been blown out of the water. The Indian press was so excited they were sweating their forehead dots off. This was the sure sign of coming world dominance. First you build the world’s cheapest car—well, OK, the Tata hasn’t exactly pushed Toyota into a panic—but we sure can blast those pirates, can’t we?
They had a point, historically. Pirate-busting is a time-honored way for up-and-coming world powers to strut their stuff when yellow-bellied old players won’t act. That’s how the “shores of Tripoli” made it into the USMC’s hymn.
It was too good to be true. In fact, war fans, here’s a big, useful tip for doing your own war-nerding: if the story seems too good to be true—like, too heroic, too Chuck Norris, too perfectly-timed—it probably is. War produces some genuine heroism but most of it never gets reported because heroes have the this habit of dying just when they’re being most heroic. So a lot of the heroism you do hear about comes because some news agency or other needs a good story. Any time something like this happens—evil pirates getting blasted just when they’re at their most dastardly—your first instinct should be “Who says?” For a good sober way to think about war, always remember the Congo, or the Eastern Front in 1944: it’s slow, grim stuff, not an action movie.
And this story was always too much like a movie. For me, the nagging little problem was that “mother ship” bit. It sounded like the Indian Navy had been watching Independence Day a few too many times. Why would they need a “mother ship”? They just wait for a big fat target to come along and zip out to it in fast open boats, showing an RPG tube or two to ensure cooperation. Nobody on a freighter or tanker full of fuel wants to see what happens when one of an RPG warhead blasts through the hull. And since they were designed to cut through tank armor, nobody doubts they can.
Of course, there was a theory that would explain the “mother ship” notion: the Somalis are operating off Yemen, far from their home bases in Puntland. Most of the captures they’ve made have been closer to Yemen than Somalia, and the blasted “mother ship” was hit off the southern coast of Yemen. So maybe, just maybe, they needed a “mother ship” to keep them supplied, give them a place to rest up between zips out to capture passing ships far from shore.
But what “mother ship” really meant was “not your typical pirate boat at all.” In fact, it just came out in the world press that this mother was no pirate but a humble Thai fishing boat. How do you say “Whoopsie!” in Hindi?
Another good question would be, what’s a dead Thai fisherman worth, times 14? Because there were 15 Thai crew on that fishing boat, and only one survived bombardment by the Indian navy frigate Tabar. That’s a lot of insurance payments, if you can hope to get money out of another country’s navy operating in international waters.
The Indian Navy has already started the weaseling-out-of-responsibility process, a vitally important service for any modern navy.
The Navy spokesman said the trawler was a pirate ship “in description and intent.” I love that. It gets back to everybody’s favorite in-class debate trick, “Define ‘pirate ship’…I mean who can say what’s a pirate ship and what’s not? It’s like ‘love,’ what’s love? The love between a parent and a child, or a dog and a cat…” And so, your honor, we done blasted 14 shrimp fishermen right out of their Pad Thai. What exactly does it mean to be a pirate ship in “description and intent”? I’m guessing “description” means “Uh, it had pirates on it and it was floating.” Which is true, you have to give the Mumbai mumblers that one: the Thai boat had been already hijacked by pirates, and according to the officers who gave the order to blast it, “Pirates were seen roaming the deck with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.”
And what I love about these Somalis is that those deck-roamin’ Jack Sparrows “responded” to the frigate’s call to heave to by “saying [they] would blow up the Indian ship.” That’s my boyeeeez! A handful of Somalis with a couple of shoulder-fired Russian RPGs that were probably older than they were responded to a friggin’ frigate, a high-tech blue-water full-size naval frigate, god damn it, by threatening to blow it up! You can’t beat the Somalis. Win or lose, I love these guys.
And for you bleeding hearts out there, the eeeeeevil pirates haven’t even been killing people. On the contrary, according to news reports the pirate chiefs have actually hired local chefs to cook up primo gourmet meals for their hostages while they wait for the ransom to arrive. This is business for these guys.
And let’s not get all weepy about this Thai fishing boat either. I love Thais, well their noodles anyway, and their war elephants and naturally muay Thai, but look, why do you think the whole population of coastal Somalia suddenly went pirate? Because the fish they used to catch are gone, vanished, keeping company with the Dodo and other former fauna of the Indian Ocean—thanks to the Asian fishing fleets that took advantage of the fact that Somalia has no government to zoom over and drop the big nets, the ones that take every last clam and beer bottle off the ocean floor. There are no fish to fish any more. So the Somalis, instead of waiting for a handout, went to work with what they had. If life hands you lemons, grab your RPG and lasso a supertanker, as I believe Maya Angelou once said in her inspirational book, I Sure Am Funny-Looking.
Now in military terms the key question on the deck of that Indian frigate, the Tabar, would have been, what do you do? Do you blast the “mother ship” out of the mother-lovin’ ocean with deck guns or do you board it, risking casualties and nasty holes in your nice clean hull?
For your average spit and polish naval officer, whatever country, that’s a no-brainer. Ask any ex-Navy guy and what they love the most is practicing with the deck guns, totally useless in modern war but fun as Hell, using mid-size 57mm rapid-fire models, basically varmint plinkers, the navy version of a farmer’s .22.
And how the ranks had a chance to actually use the damn thing and get on the BBC! A legitimate target! Live video games for everybody! The temptation would have been too much for any red-blooded navy man.
In hindsight, sure, they could have asked, “Any civilian crew with you pirates over there? Are you an evil alien mother ship or just, y’know, a shrimp boat outta Pattaya?” But hindsight is 20/20, or in this case 57mm. Kaboom! And the world press had a new hero—for about four news cycles, until those widows in Pattaya started asking when hubby was coming home with his shrimp money.
And I’ll bet you the story about how it was just a fishing boat after all won’t get a tenth of the play that “Mother Ship Blasted!” story had last week. And they say the media don’t report the good news! Truth is, they do—even when it’s pure bullshit.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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