Death's Head: Piracy, Plunder and Foreign Policy

Christopher Moody's Flag, circa 1720

Where is the justice of political power if it executes the murderer and jails the plunderer, and then itself marches upon neighboring lands, killing thousands and pillaging the very hills? ~ Kahlil Gibran

Piracy is a poor type of foreign policy.

The lawless practice of seizing ships for commercial gain that plagued the coasts of the Americas in the late 17th century seems to have evolved into the outright seizure of ships of state in the 21st century. When Bartholomew Roberts, a man of some principle, captured 400 ships in four short years of piracy before being killed in battle, he skirted the law of man, preemptively striking his prey, yet doubtful he ever justified his actions before God.

Blackbeard flourished for one short year toward the end of the Golden Age of Piracy (1689-1718), seizing some 40 ships before being killed in bloody, hand-to-hand battle at Ocracoke Inlet in 1718. Perhaps had he been born later and served aboard the USN aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, for example, Captain Edward Teach could have helped capture an entire vassal state without so much as risking his neck (he was beheaded). One man's act of piracy for selfish gain is another man's grand, patriotic act.

'The line between officially sanctioned acts and actual piracy was always a fine one,' said Libby Klekowsli, a biologist researching Captain Kidd's excursion into the Connecticut River . Historical documents list well over 500 English 'pirates, buccaneers, corsairs' independently attacking 'targets of opportunity.' Privateers like Morgan and Drake acted under the sanction of sovereign states, ostensibly raiding enemy shipping under the aegis of exploration while sharing the plunder with king or queen. That fine line between legality and acts of piracy often got a man knighted'Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan'or hung from the neck, if not beheaded in battle.

The conquest of Iraq by seizing command of the skies and seas, surrounding her and outgunning this lumbering warship of a country with broadsides represents the capture of a trophy ship by a buccaneer. The treasure beneath the sands of Iraq 'black gold in the form of billions of barrels of oil--exceeds in value all the gold from all the fleets of Spanish galleons that ever sailed. Seen from the perspective of a 17th century buccaneer, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld foreign policy of plundering countries on the high seas makes good economic sense. All that is lacking is legality and a suitable pirate banner.

The glyphic devices of Christopher Moody's banner (pictured above), while designed in the early 18th century, perhaps best symbolizes occupied Iraq . The winged hourglass symbolizes the fleeting notion of liberty, or, if you prefer, the insistent, never-ending search for WMD. The upraised arm symbolizes tyranny both past, present and to come, while the grinning skull symbolizes victims, both American and Iraqi, of depleted radiation poison or perhaps only the mocking of our moral ambiguity.

insignia of the skull and bonesThe black flag, death's head, jolly Roger or skull and crossbones still flies prominently'although hardly visibly'from the ship of American foreign policy as she plows through uncharted waters. Truthfully, the days of swashbuckling pirates never really died in North America but became more secretive, sinister and'some say'far more dangerous. The flag of convenience hoisted by our captains of industry, banking, law, military and media (or propaganda) resembles not Old Glory but the death's head pictured to the left (322). While you and I sing garbled stanzas to the Stars and Stripes, the most powerful men in America salute the death's head banner of a secret society at Yale University in Connecticut.

'Those on the inside know it as The Order. Others have known it for more than 150 years as Chapter 322,' said Antony C. Sutton, author of the book, America 's Secret Establishment, a revealing look inside the Skull and Bones Society. 'It was also once known as 'The Brotherhood of Death',' Sutton added. 'The power of the place remains unmistakable . . . . To rival institutions and academic reformers there was something irritating and disquieting about old Yale College .'

Disquieting? Consider our last three presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, attended Yale and, not coincidentally, the 'terror expert' governing Iraq , Paul Bremer III, is another Yale insider. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who lauded the approach of "World War IV," John Bolton and Lewis Libby, all Yale. All powerful. Disquieting.

The elite and powerful, some say altogether sinister, cult of the Skull and Bones Society'think of the masked revelers in the movie 'Eyes Wide Shut"--traces its origins back to Germany . From there the philosophy of an all-powerful state, sharing many of the same tenets and rituals of the Third Reich, took root with the WASPs of New England, many of whom could trace their roots, ironically, to buccaneer brethren. Not surprisingly, the Nazis adopted a parallel vision, decorating the military badges (shown at left) of their SS special forces with a death's head lifted, as was that of Yale's Skull and Bones Society, from the existing flags and symbols of piracy, murder and mayhem.

While many Bonesmen of Yale downplay the symbolism and fascist pageantry that occurs in the windowless meeting hall--known as 'The Tomb'--as nothing more than youthful merriment and harmless initiation rites, some critics see a darker side, suggesting the 'double cross' of the black flag signifies a truer ambition, similar to the more explicit motto of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad''By way of deceit, thou shalt make war.'

Examples of subverted, occupied, undermined or double-crossed nations lend weight to those who contend a US conspiracy for unlimited global power is well underway. 'Between 1945 and now, the US has never stopped being at war with the world. For 58 years, there has never been a single year in which it has not bombed and occupied another country, and in most years, it has attacked two or more countries at the same time,' said Professor of English literature, Uzma Khan. 'I haven't even touched upon America 's non-military, CIA-backed interference in the governance of sovereign countries all over the world,' she added.

Doug Henwood, author of Spooks In Blue, said, 'There is something profoundly undemocratic about the culture . . . . The CIA's Yale is the Yale of secret societies, like the infamous Skull and Bones, whose alumni fill the Agency.' By contrast to the eastern elites playing at pirate, playing at spy, helming a ship with a madman's eye, let us pause to consider a buccaneer who actually lived and died by a code, by principles yet foreign to our jingoist's mode of saluting the death's head, but usually attired in black tie while lesser worlds explode.

Article 1''Every man has a vote in affairs of moments; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment,' wrote Bartholomew Roberts in his Articles. Notice the almost Jeffersonian phrases at beginning and end. Recall that these Articles--eleven in all--were written long before the US Constitution, and since then have not been improved upon but rather eroded by those who would sail us into a war in the name of God, while play-acting at pirate.

Will we Americans simply be remembered by the world as just another band of pirates? Bigger but no better? Toward the end of the Golden Age of Pirates, the repercussions of resentment by land dwellers eventually overtook most of these buccaneers; those not killed in battle were captured and hung. Bartholomew Roberts, killed in 1722. Blackbeard 1718. Captain Kidd, hung by the neck and then allowed to rot, in 1701. The difference between pirates and those who play at being pirates is that the swashbuckler risked his own neck. Antony Sutton said of the modern pretender: 'These prominent men are really immature juveniles at heart. The horrible reality is that these little boys have been dominant in world affairs. No wonder we have wars and violence.'

JACK RACKAMNowadays we may find ourselves charmed by the legends of buccaneers while overlooking the reality, and yet some legends offer a colorful story and a moral lesson as well. While the banner of Calico Jack Rackham (left) resembles the flag of the world champion NFL Buccaneers of Tampa Bay (home of CentCom) , Calico Jack became known as much for his crew as for his exploits. Legendary lady pirate, Ann Bonny, a quick-triggered cutthroat attired in trousers, fought alongside Jack and may have been his mistress. When their ship was attacked in 1720, Rackham and many of his men fled to the hold while Ann Bonny and another woman, Mary Read, remained on deck and resisted their captors. Pregnant, the two women avoided the gallows, and Bonny witnessed the execution of Calico Jack. 'I'm sorry to see you here, Jack,' she said, 'but if you'd have fought like a man you needn't hang like a dog.'

And perhaps if we conducted ourselves like men, instead of spoiled, rich kids playing at pirate, the world wouldn't snarl at us like dogs.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @