News has broken that Iran’s military has captured two U.S. Navy vessels and is holding 10 American sailors. The details of the capture and what caused it are still sketchy, but the Iranian government has assured the White House that the sailors are safe and unharmed as of the time of this writing. The two Navy vessels were named as riverine patrol craft (no confirmation on this or the exact type), and the sailors are allegedly being held on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. It is unknown whether the boats strayed into Iranian waters.

So a whole lot of unknowns, with the only facts being that the sailors and craft are in the hands of the Iranian military. All of this came just hours (9 p.m. EST) before U.S. President Barack Obama was scheduled to give the final State of the Union address of his administration. Speculation is flying, some suggesting that the capture is the work of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who are looking to scuttle the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the Iranian government. There is also speculation (unfounded and unconfirmed, although the pictures being shown of the vessel do look like a Mark V SOC) that the U.S. military personnel were SEALs or other special operations personnel on either a real-world or training mission.

So what now? Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets are already doing the, “See I told ya so! #irannukedeal” dance. (Senator Tom Cotton is saying just that—repeatedly—on news shows as I write this.) Many more are screaming for immediate and direct military intervention. But what might realistic options to get our sailors and boats back look like?

In order to better understand that, we need to first look at what past options have yielded us, and if history offers any lessons that can be applied to the situation. The First Barbary War (1801–1805) between the United States and the four North African Muslim states known collectively as the Barbary States (made up of Morocco, Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis), came as the result of pirates from the Barbary States seizing American merchant ships and holding the crews for ransom, then demanding the U.S. pay ransom to the Barbary rulers. Not surprisingly, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay up.

He did, however, send a small squadron of three frigates and one schooner, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, with gifts and letters to attempt to maintain peace with the Barbary powers. In the event that war had been declared, Dale was instructed “to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression,” but Jefferson, “insisted that he was ‘unauthorized by the U.S. constitution without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.’” The result was a series of blockades and sea battles that ended in the capture or destruction of countless Barbary ships, but no U.S. sailors returned.

The turning point in the war was the Battle of Derna (April–May 1805), when ex-consul William Eaton, a former Army captain, and Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, led a force of eight U.S. Marines and 500 mercenaries—Greeks from Crete, Arabs, and Berbers—on a march across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to assault and capture the Tripolitan city of Derna. This was the first time the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil, and the mission is memorialized in this line from the Marines’ Hymn: “…to the shores of Tripoli.” The efforts and results on the part of the U.S. government and military were swift and immediate, but as with any situation from operations to world politics, the situation (and all of the details) can and should dictate the response.


On January 23, 1968, USS PUEBLO (AGER-2) was attacked in international waters by North Korean forces. Eighty-two surviving crew members were captured and held prisoner for 11 months. During that time, the White House tabled every option from military intervention (it was shelved after the CIA admitted that it could not gain a definite fix on the prisoners’ position within North Korea) to diplomatic screaming (which proved harder to do after it was alleged that some of the crew “confessed” to being ordered to violate North Korean territory and spy). In the end, loose diplomacy (and the alleged intervention of the Soviet Union and China) resulted in the release of the crew.