Amidst his recounting the Crusades, Edward Gibbon also had this to say by way of preliminary summary:
“The enthusiasm of the first crusade is a natural and simple event, while hope was fresh, danger untried, and enterprise congenial to the spirit of the times. But the obstinate perseverance of Europe may indeed excite our pity and admiration; that no instruction should have been drawn from constant and adverse experience; that the same confidence should have repeatedly grown from the same failures; that six succeeding generations should have rushed headlong down the precipice that was open before them; and that men of every condition should have staked their public and private fortunes on the desperate adventure of possessing or recovering a tomb-stone two thousand miles from their country. In a period of two centuries after the council of Clermont, each spring and summer produced a new emigration of pilgrim warriors for the defence of the Holy Land; but the seven great armaments or crusades were excited by some impending or recent calamity; the nations were moved by the authority of their pontiffs, and the example of their kings; their zeal was kindled, and their reason was silenced, by the voice of their holy orators…” (1)
Before it was over the flower of Europe had died on the foreign sands of Arabia. In the end, with nothing left, Europe sent its children in the famous, or infamous, ‘children’s crusade’ on the dubious assumption that innocence itself would be the savior of the cause. So unhinged and so divorced from reason had society become after decades of stress and sacrifice.
Rather than strengthening the social bonds that held medieval society together, the conflict only served to depopulate the region, raising the working wages and loosening the feudal bonds. A process that would lead, by degrees to the ‘freeing of labor and capital’ and introduce the modern liberal democratic state as well as a capitalist and quasi-capitalist economy. Additionally, with the eventual loss of the Holy Land and the resulting plague that the Crusaders brought back with them, the ties between the people and the Holy See began to fray; a process that once begun would prove inexorable and end in the Protestant Reformation.
“That we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain;” (2) Abraham Lincoln intoned at Gettysburg, for once loosed the ‘dogs of war’ become a force unto themselves, a force to be reckoned with, a force that consumes not only the adversary ,but themselves, and perhaps their masters as well. Those that gave their ‘last full measure of devotion’ to the cause must be vindicated and the thought that they have, in fact, perished for nothing is repugnant to every patriot. An internal logic emerges in which the war must go on in order to justify the sacrifices; with the result that the conflict becomes its own justification.
The problem is that rarely does war present us with victory on all sides, and often victory even eludes the victors. We are presently honoring the centennial of the “Great War”, fought in the killing fields of Flanders, Verdun and the Somme, with a parallel struggle waged in the trenches of Eastern Europe. Two armed camps waged relentless war upon each other for four long years, killing approximately 16 million people and introducing a world-wide epidemic that emerged from the trenches killing an additional 18 million souls. The war originated from a need to ‘punish’ a nascent insurgency my a nationalist movement called the ‘black hand’, responsible it was said, for the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian empire. By punishing a people, instead of the individuals responsible, the actions of the empire evoked a response from the Russians who had strong cultural ties with Serbia. Once the Russians entered the fray, a system of treaty alliances brought the other world powers into the contest resulting in the tragedy that was to define the 20th century. Before it was over Europe had been bled white, and the empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany and the Ottoman Turks were no more.
Barbara Tuchman (3) and others have made careers of documenting the follies of war. One pattern emerges very clear, however, and that is that the ends of the ‘war’ however and whenever fought almost never resembles the purposes for which the conflict was begun in the first place. In the end a war presents a very different face than when it began and the longer it goes on the greater the variance between what one imagined a resort to arms would accomplish at the beginning and the place in which one finds one’s self at its conclusion. One looks in vain for an example of a war that ended accomplishing only the declared intentions at the beginning. The “War of Jenkins Ear” perhaps, but even that unlikely conflict was subsumed by the later “War of Austrian Succession” (4). No one thought that the American Civil War would last as long as it did and no one, least of all the Confederates would have imagined a national conscription, a national currency, and an emerging national army. (5) Similarly, no one—least of all the intellectually challenged European elite—could have imagined the war bringing an end to their respective monarchies and empires. But even Wilson was not immune to the vicitudes of war. Declaring the conflict a ‘war to end all wars’, the ‘Great War’ served only to lay the groundwork for an even more terrible future conflict after a decent interval in which Europe would be allowed to produce another generation of cannon fodder.
Similarly the end of the Second World War brought with it uncertain resolutions. The war began in defense of the territorial integrity of Poland and ended with that country firmly under the Soviet yoke. In the bargain Britain lost her empire and Europe was once again reduced to ashes. Finally, at the end of the ‘cold war’, Germany was re-united. While some things were accomplished, the new world economic order negotiated at Bretton Woods, (6) for example, the war served to shift the locus of world power from Europe to a bi-polar configuration between the United States and the Soviet Union, certainly not an outcome contemplated by any of the parties beginning the conflict.
I raise these subjects because one George W. Bush has recently joined his Vice President in roundly criticizing President Obama’s handling of the conflict in Iraq, calling the president naïve and accusing him of creating ISIL. Conveniently forgetting that ‘Ol Two-Cows’ and the fools that surrounded him had promised that we would be ‘welcomed as liberators’ with ‘flowers in the streets’, and that we would establish a democratic regime to introduce the fruits of western civilization to this last bastion of resistance, Bush went about nearly unchallenged in his indictment of the current occupant of the oval office.
It was George, of course, who famously used the term ‘Crusade’ when the conflict first began, being as innocent of the historical record as the children who set off for Jerusalem all those years ago. It was George who announced the intended purposes for this conflict not understanding the nature of the ‘dogs of war’ that once loosed they tend to devour everything, even their own.
1.Gibbon, Edward. "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Vol. VI, methuen & Co. LTD, London 1912. AMS Press, New York. Pg. 345
5. Formerly while there was a national ‘dollar’, most currencies were printed by state chartered banks, soldiers were conscripted by the several states and the resulting military units were organized under the banner of each state. Hence the Michigan 21st Infantry, for example. By the end of the war the country was seeing its first military units listed under the U.S. heading. The same was true in the Confederacy which, in fact, introduced national conscription before the Union did, as it did national currency. In the end Jefferson Davis was to lament that if the Confederacy died of anything it was ‘states rights’. The demands of war trump all else.