Ion Grumeza

Author, historian, educator, and philosopher

Crusaders Then and Now

Opinion Page submission
New York Times
October 2003

Crusaders Then and Now
By Ion Grumeza

The American invasion Iraq (with minimal help from its allies) revolted the Arab world which viewed it as a Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam. In the summer of 2003, bin Laden addressed the Iraqi guerillas, asking Allah to “bless their sacrifices and valor in fighting the Crusaders.” And he added, “Devour the Americans just like lions devour their prey. Bury them in the Iraqi graveyard!”

This threatening message shows that many Muslims see no difference between old and new crusaders when it comes to what they perceive as invasions of Arab land. Modern crusaders may be armed with space weapons and attacking with the speed of sound, but the idea of a medieval crusade remains deeply anchored in religious motive to destroy the “evil” enemy.

The word “crusade” made its military debut at the end of the 12th century as Christian knights marched to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim occupation. The word meant to fight in the name of the cross, but its original significance was changed by each military action carried out in the name of a radical—but believed to be just—cause.

For thousands of years before the first crusade, tribes and nations waged wars against “evil” enemies who did not share the same god. In the case of the eight crusades (one made of children), the zealous efforts to liberate the land where Jesus walked and preached led to suicidal Christian campaigns in Palestine.

Except for the first crusade which briefly conquered Jerusalem, the rest proved to be military disasters for a variety of reasons. Problems for these multinational crusades included their lack of precise war plans and life-sustaining supplies. The weather proved equally devastating relentless desert sun overheated the metallic body armor; combined with the lack of water, countless warriors were killed on their marches to Jerusalem.

However disastrous it was, the idea of a crusade was revived over and over with much mobilizing pathos by pious leaders who wanted to eliminate evil adversaries. Many times Christian kings crusaded against their royal peers who carried the cross and sword (coincidentally made in the same shape) with equal confidence in their righteousness. Meanwhile, innocents were slaughtered by the millions, and neighboring countries became enemies.

A similar situation can be seen with the post-Columbus conquistadors who planted the cross on each unknown shore on which they landed. Along with the Bible, they brought deadly infections, brutal treatment of the natives, and the destruction of inherent civilizations. In the New World lands, humble and well-intentioned missionaries were overshadowed by merciless soldiers who plundered the richness of the new lands.

No Renaissance was brought from Europe to these other lands. Instead, the cross came and with it, exploitation, slavery, and genocide.
In more recent history, crusades have taken on broader implications. The Puritans promoted their own crusade that ultimately led to the creation of the United States of America—so far, the only known happy result of a crusade. Karl Marx wanted the destruction of the capitalistic system; in the vast land of the Russian Orthodox faith, Lenin and Stalin led a crusade to replace the cross with a red star. In Nazi Germany, a new cross, one with hooked arms raised to oppose the international menace of the new Communist “religion,” became the unifying symbol of the Axis of Evil against which the allies crusaded.

The explosion of two atomic bombs in the land of Japanese gods opened the era of the Cold War. The Americans and the Soviets clashed in Korea and Vietnam in crusades that fought under the flags of the white and red stars. The arms race between the two global powers ultimately collapsed the Red Empire under its own military might. The blue star of David and the green star of Mohammed clashed again in the Biblical land, engaging mercantile crusaders happy to sell weapons to the religious enemies.

When Saddam Hussein, the former “child of the Soviets” (put in power by Americans), crusaded to re-attach Kuwait to Iraq, he was pushed back by a western coalition determined to keep the oil fields away from his exploitation. Defeated, but more powerful than ever, Saddam remained a thorn on the American policy in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, around Jerusalem, the eternal target of the first crusaders, the Israelis and Palestinians carried on a bloody crusade, disputing their religious right to the land of Abraham and Jesus.

When the Twin Towers collapsed under the attack of the Jihad suiciders, newly elected president George W. Bush struck a computerized military crusade into Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. now occupies both countries as a dubious victor: neither the “evil” bin Laden or Saddam have been caught and punished. It would happen ten years later.

History shows that, with very few exceptions, crusades end in crushing defeats or shameful retreats of the invading army. There is a lesson here that we have somehow not yet learned: crusaders self-righteously believe they are the arm of God, but the people on the opposite side of the front line also believe they are fighting for what is Right. When man kills man in the name of God, he is in fact making God the enemy…and a reason for yet another crusade.

© 2003 Ion Grumeza