- "Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." -Umberto Eco
- “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war's appeal.” Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
And God knows there are so many options: drugs, video games, sex, crime (more for its thrills and potential violence than even any financial gains), war, love, learning, religion (ranging from strict to cults), and anything else that can give meaning to a life that... well, in the industrialized world, is pretty safely fenced in from all but self-inflicted dangers. And those self-inflicted dangers are very enticing. Danger is very enticing.
So we have young men from all over the world, including America, Canada, and Europe, heading off to jihad in the Middle East or wherever else they can find it. Much fewer women. (Perhaps because women's lives, everywhere, offer a little more danger than men's on a daily basis.)
It's very reminiscent of all the young men who could not WAIT to sign up to go off on the Crusades during the 11th-13th centuries.
Only the first Crusade was successful, if by successful you mean attaining the military objective of "getting Jerusalem out of the hands of the infidel." Successive crusades were either a waste of time, blood and manpower, OR they were remarkably successful, if your definition of success is "getting a whole lot of loot by sacking Christian cities" like Constantinople.
The Crusades were packaged as a religious war, which would take back the Holy Land (as if it had ever been ruled by Europeans). But it was also, in a practical sense, a way of dealing with a whole lot of single young men who, lacking video games, were rampaging through Europe fighting and feuding and being generally destructive. A very modern note is that most of these young men did not have a chance in hell of ever getting married: medieval Europe had a gender imbalance (more men than women) among the upper classes, thanks to bad medieval medicine, monasteries as birth control, and probably a certain amount of gender-specific infanticide. And, even if there was an available woman, it took a lot of money to get married, because you had to be able to support the wife, children, and retainers of decent knightly living. And most of these were younger sons: no money, no land, no marriage.
Believe me, medieval rulers, both church and state, recognized the problem of these young men, and so they tried to "curb socially destructive fighting" with chivalric ideals, with church rules, with tournaments, and you know what? It was still out of hand. So they shipped them overseas and let them fight their hearts out.
|Massacre of Jerusalem|
Keeping Outremer was the problem. For some reason, the locals wanted their country back, and Saladin's grandfather, Zangi, led a jihad that took back the Kingdom of Edessa. As soon as word got back to Europe, a Second Crusade (1147-1149)was preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which accomplished very little except get Eleanor of Aquitaine quite a reputation, and St. Francis of Assisi an opportunity to preach to a Sultan, while the English forces got sidetracked with kicking the Moors out of Lisbon.
Forty years later, the Third Crusade pitted Saladin against Richard the Lion-Heart of England (Eleanor of Aquitaine's son by Henry II). The two great medieval warriors got involved in a very chivalric exchange of poetry and gifts before Richard beheaded 2,700 Muslim hostages because they got in his way. On the way home, Richard got captured and held for ransom by Duke Leopold of Austria. (It's Richard's absence in the Third Crusade that gave the legend of Robin Hood real fire.)
Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Where the Crusaders, tempted by the wily Venetians, said the hell with the Holy Land and attacked, looted and sacked, first Zara and then Constantinople, both Christian cities. The bronze horses, the winged lion, and a lot more "Venetian" treasures were taken in this Crusade. About 10% of the Crusaders did go on to the Holy Land, but they might as well not have bothered. In fact, by sacking Constantinople, the "Crusaders" made it easier for the Ottoman Turks to eventually take over not just the Middle East and North Africa, but most of Eastern Europe... But that's another story.
There were more Crusades, one of which was successful: In 1228-29, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II went over and - rather than fighting - negotiated a 10 year truce with the Muslims, regaining the City of Jerusalem back for the Crusaders in exchange for religious toleration of Muslims in the Holy Land. For this, he was excommunicated by the Pope and considered a heretic (and a softy) by everyone in Europe.
And then there were the "crusades" of the common people: The People's Crusade under Peter the Hermit, in which 20,000 peasants - men, women and children - got slaughtered by either the Hungarian Magyars or the Turks. The Children's Crusade of 1212, where a young French shepherd named Stephen and Nicholas from Cologne both had visions in which they were commanded to raise an army to free the Holy Land. They got thousands of children to accompany them, all across Europe. (Which leads to the obvious question: what the hell were their parents thinking?) Anyway, the children made it to Marseilles, where two merchants, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, put them on 7 ships to the Holy Land, where every single one of them was sold into slavery.
|Siege of Baghdad|
None of the Crusades succeeded in taking out the Muslim Abassid Dynasty. That job was reserved for the Mongols, who invaded in the 1200s. In 1258, Hulugu Khan (grandson of Genghis) invaded, sacked, and burned Baghdad to the ground, killing one million Muslims. In 1291, his successors took the entire Muslim world while other great-grandchildren of Genghis were banging on the gates of Vienna. Eventually the Mongol Empire -stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean - spread Islam all the way to China.
There have always been holy wars, preached by old men, fought by young men - but the results are rarely what either hopes for. Nobody "won" the Crusades. Nobody "wins" any holy war; the end usually comes down to the stark realities of wholesale massacre and/or endless blood feud, all in the name of religion. But holy wars, under any name, are indeed a force that give certain people meaning, and give certain people extreme excitement, what with bloodshed and massacre made legal, even holy. To quote from Dexter Filkins' "The Death of Steven Sotloff" (New Yorker, 9/2/14), "the political goals [of ISIS]—a civil war, in which Islamist forces would triumph—seem secondary to the promise of terrible destruction... 'If the enemy wins, we will burn everything.'" Which is exactly what the Crusaders, the Muslims, and the Mongols did, to everyone they ran across, time and again.
Filkins continues, "...[to] the guys who signed up for ISIS—including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife—killing is the real point of being there. Last month, when ISIS forces overran a Syrian Army base in the city of Raqqa, they beheaded dozens of soldiers and displayed their trophies on bloody spikes. 'Here are heads that have ripened, that were ready for the plucking,' an ISIS fighter said in narration. Two soldiers were crucified. This sounds less like a battle than like some kind of macabre party." And that is exactly what holy wars are: a macabre party, in which anything goes, anything is acceptable, anything can be done, no matter how depraved or despicable, because the cause is "right".
It's everyone else who suffers.