Showing posts with label wars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wars. Show all posts

11 September 2014

Holy War

by Eve Fisher

  • "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
There are a few obvious things about people in their teens and early twenties: an excruciating focus on themselves, a low thresh hold for boredom, an even lower tolerance for criticism [while dishing out lots of it to others], a disgust for trivia, gossip, and mass culture [usually while digesting huge amounts of it], a constant pursuit of sheer sensation [which is their definition of knowing that one is alive], and a determination that their lives will in no way ever, ever, ever resemble those of their elders (I know: I remember it clearly).

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
The guys, of course, went because this was the adventure of a lifetime.  A young man's job was to fight. Reading letters and memoirs (read Villehardouin about the Fourth Crusade; Joinville about, God help us, the Seventh), it's obvious that every one of them expected to fight hard, kill lots of the infidel, and win castles, lands, women, money, everything they need to live well.  And they're going to have a glorious time, because young men know that they will never die in battle.  (In fact, most of them died of dysentery, typhus, and gangrene.)  So off they went, and the First Crusade (1097-1099) did indeed take back Jerusalem, and win the Four Crusader Kingdoms of Outremer: Jerusalem, Edessa (Turkey), Antioch (Syria), and Tripoli (Lebanon). And they massacred their way through all of it:  in Jerusalem, to celebrate and cement their victory, the knights beheaded every Muslim (men, women, and children).  When the Jews fled for safety to the synagogue in Jerusalem, the Crusaders burned it - and the Jews - to the ground.


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.

12 November 2012

Known Only to God

by Fran Rizer

Are you off from work today? Although yesterday, November 11th, was Veterans Day, today is the official legal holiday for government workers and bank employees. I never understood why educational districts in SC didn't (and still don't) schedule Veterans Day as a holiday for students and teachers. After all, what's a parade without kids there to watch and how does the non-holiday instill an appropriate respect among youngsters ?

A little history: World War I, "the war to end all wars," stopped at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. November 11 was proclaimed Armistice Day. If, indeed, that war had ended all wars, we would still have an Armistice Day, but in 1939, World War II began in Europe.

On November 11, 1947, Raymond Weeks organized a parade in Birmingham, Alabama, to honor American military members for loyal service. He called it a Veterans Day Parade. Later, US Representative Edward H. Rees of Kansas proposed legislation that changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day and issued a Presidential Order for Americans to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace. In 1968, Congress moved the holiday to the fourth Friday of October, but in 1978, the date was returned to November 11 because of its historical significance.

A little explanation: Some people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Aren't they both meant to honor and thank our military? As I used to tell my elementary students, Memorial Day honors the dead while Veterans Day honors all veterans, both living and dead. They understood that and gladly took part in assemblies and making cards to send to those in the military. (We watched the Veterans Day Parades on television.)

National Veterans Day
Arlington Cemetery,
November 11, 2011.
What they didn't understand was the Tomb of the Unknowns--originally called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when the unidentified body of an American soldier was buried on a hillside in Virginia in 1921 and put under military guard twenty-four, seven to symbolize dignity and reverence for all of American's veterans . "But, why, Ms. Rizer, why didn't they send him home to his family?"

I explained about the national ceremony every November 11 when the President of the United States or his representative lays a wreath on the tomb and there's a parade of flags and many dignitaries giving speeches, but the question remained, "But why, Ms. Rizer, why was he 'known only to God' and why didn't they send him home to his family?" Back then, it was okay to mention God in the classroom, but even back then, the symbolism of the unknown was difficult, and I didn't want to explain war and corpses to children.

This isn't the photo that went
viral, but it's my favorite of
the Tomb of the Unknowns
because of the lighting.
A photo that went viral on the Internet during Sandy showed the Tomb of the Unknowns being guarded by military during bad weather, and many thought this was actually taken during Sandy. I immediately thought, "What a great teaching tool!" and saved the picture though I'm no longer teaching. Turned out the picture was made in September, but it still made a valid point because the guards did remain on duty during Sandy.

Recently, I cleaned out my mother's bedroom closet. Hanging way back in the corner was a World War II soldier's uniform. It brought back memories. Not that I remembered my dad wearing it though I'd seen pictures of him in uniform, but I recalled a story I'd heard hundreds of times. When the USA entered the second World War, my father was deferred because he was a professor. As he told me,

I knew that one day I'd have a son and he'd ask, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?" I didn't want to have to tell him I stayed home and taught, so I joined the Army. Well, later, I did have a child and I've never been disappointed that you are you and a girl, but could you just one time ask, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?"

And being the sweet spirit I've always been, I always answered, "But Daddy, I love you no matter what you did during the war." I was grown before I realized he really did want me to ask about what he did during that war of national unity, common goals, and war rationing that our generation and especially our children's generation will never understand.

As a child, I assumed that my daddy was
probably one of these men photographed
in February, 1945,
Since then, my life has been filled with military men and women. My father-in-law was retired Navy; my sons' father served in both the Army and Navy; my sons' service has been both Marine and Navy; and my grandson's mother was in the Navy when he was born.

Uniforms have surrounded me most of my days--both personally and in everyday life since Fort Jackson, U.S. Army training facility, is located in my hometown and Shaw Air Force Base is only about forty minutes away.

The recruits look handsome and healthy in their uniforms when they're downtown on leave but sometimes they come back in different conditions.

During World War II, my father suffered permanent injury that led to his being bedridden most of his adult life, and I remember hearing of men who were shell-shocked. (I was grown before I realized they weren't saying "shell shot.") Is there any difference now? Men and women still come home with permanent injuries and with post-traumatic stress disorder.

World War I turned out not to be "the war to end all wars." Why? Students asked, "Why, Ms. Rizer, why is there war?" It's easy to say wars are fought because of differences in beliefs and goals, but I believe the real answer to that question is like the identity of the unknown body in that grave under military guard in Arlington Cemetery--known only to God.
Some of our Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

Veterans Day means more than little flags on graves in our cemeteries and big flags folded and placed in survivors' hands as "Taps" is played. It's more than American Legion and VFW clubs. It's more than the many veterans organizations who provide help and scholarships to vets and their families. It's more than projects like the national program to preserve veterans' memoirs. It's more than flag-waving and parades and a day off from work. It is a time to honor all vets, the living and dead, the healthy and the injured, and to give them our most sincere
THANK YOU!

God, please bless America, our veterans, and their families.