Just Good Company
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Wide praise for Senator Ted Kennedy's speech on January 14, 2004, spelling out the reasons why the U.S. should not have gone to war against Iraq. But even before a single bomb was dropped on Baghdad, we wrote a white paper, ticking off almost identical arguments about the spurious U.S.  rationale for that war, and venturing some predictions about its long-term consequences. Furthermore, while Sen. Kennedy made vague references to the ideology behind the Bush Administration's decision, we named it. It was America's unconscious religion, a form of self-worship that we cloaked in the ancient words of Holy War. Using these words is one of history's most ancient self-delusions, dating back to the Babylonians, the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament and the Christian Crusades. Americans (and others) are still caught up in that self-delusion today,

Here is that white paper. We submitted it to The New Yorker magazine on March 9, 2003, just days before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Although The New Yorker had expressed its reservations against the Bush Administration's reactions to 9/11, it chose not to run this piece. We're running it here, because we believe most Americans are still caught up in this self-worship. It represents a danger to the entire planet.

Holy Words Holy War
They shushed Bush for calling it a crusade.
But that's exactly what he meant.

Robert Blair Kaiser

             Shortly after 9/11, President Bush called for a crusade against terrorists. His aides were immediately apprised of the enraged reaction in the Muslim world against this unscripted remark. Islam can remember those bloody assaults by papal armies over more than three centuries as most Americans cannot -- if indeed we ever knew much about them at all. Most wrote off Bush's remark as just one more verbal gaffe, and he used the word crusade no more.

             But subsequent events over the next 17 months (when George W. Bush transferred his ire from the terrorist he couldn't find to the nearest available villain) show that the president used exactly the right word to describe his efforts to launch a war against any force that he cares to identify as part of "the axis of evil."

             For Bush had long been indoctrinated in the notion that men can find something holy in war -- whenever they align themselves in the simple struggle of good against evil. Killing an ungodly enemy: this is what has always made a war holy. President Bush keeps taking up the theme. He talks often about America's "divinely guided mission." During his September 20, 2001 speech to Congress, he said, "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." The implication is God will intervene on the world stage, mediating between good and evil. In his State of the Union address last month, Bush said that we place confidence in the loving God "behind all of life, and all of history" and that "we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country. May He guide us now."

             Not so incredibly, Osama bin Laden uses the same kind of God-talk. "Fight the agents of the devil," he says, calling on Muslims throughout the world in a videotape distributed in late February to unite behind Iraq. "God will give us victory."

President Bush and Osama bin Laden mirror each other's fundamentalism, a kind of righteous self-delusion that could trigger an all-out shooting war between the West and a billion Muslims. Or, more likely, a series of 9/11-type attacks by militant Muslim extremists in the world's major cities for years to come, followed by eye-for-an-eye reprisals by the countries that have come under attack.

             The prospect forces a cool look at the delusional nature of this thing called holy war – best illustrated by the arguments Pope Urban II used when he launched the First Crusade against the evil empire of Islam at Clermont in southern France in 1095. To better understand the rhetorical (and the real) thrust of this move, we could pretend for a moment that The New York Times was there. Here is a story that John Kifner or Francis X. Clines might have written:





Crowd Cries "God Wills It"

Pontiff Promises Remission of Sin


Expedition Next Summer

Knights to Wear the Sign of the Cross



Special to The New York Times

    CLERMONT, FRANCE, NOV. 27 -- Pope Urban II, responding to a general threat on Christendom from "an accursed race, a barbarous people, estranged from God," called today for a holy war against Islam.

    "Christ ordains it," he told a crowd of several thousand, which included bands of knights from all of Western Europe. The knights have been fighting for years against one another. But today they gathered together, along with several hundred prelates who are here for a general church council, monks from the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, representatives of the French nobility, and clusters of the curious.

    To this crowd, the pope reported that the Seljuk Turks had seized Jerusalem. This gave Christians only one choice, according to the pope, who spoke not in Latin, but in the language of his native France. "Come forward to the defense of Christ, you who have carried on feuds, come to the war against the infidels. You who have been thieves, become soldiers. Fight a just war. Labor for everlasting reward, with God's guidance."

       At this point, a murmur seemed to rise from the multitude on this still autumn day, and then a shout that reverberated to the bell tower of the Church of Our Lady of the Gate. Dieu lo vult! "God wills it!"

       Others took up the cry. "God wills it." Above the voices, steel clanged as men jerked swords from their sheaths.

    The pope seemed to take their response as a sign. "Unless the Lord God had been here in your minds," he said, "you would not have cried out in this way, as one. And so I say that God has drawn this cry from you. Let it be your battle cry. When you go against the enemy, let this shout be raised -- `God wills it.'"

Pope Remits Sins

       "Do not fear death," he said, "where Christ laid down his life for you."  He assured the knights that any who lose their lives in this holy war, even on their way by sea or land, would get full remission of their sins, and go straight to heaven, "as soldiers of Christ."

    The pope also pointed out that those who did not die could keep control of the lands they conquered. "Take the road to Jerusalem," he said, "rescue that land from a dreadful race and rule over it yourselves, for the land that flows with milk and honey (as the Scripture says) was given by God as a possession to the children of Israel."

    Urban indicated that a foreign expedition leading to the control of foreign kingdoms would ease domestic quarrels in France, a country he called "overcrowded."

    The pope may have been referring to the current demographic situation in France, where, under the law of primogeniture, land cannot be divided, but must pass to the eldest son in every family. Younger sons who leave their ancestral farms must turn to a career in the church, or become troubadours, or play at war (see Sports, p. 1, for George Vecsey's report on yesterday's tournament at Reims, won by Godfrey of Bouillon).

    Sometimes, young knights do more than play, a fact pointed out by the pope. After his remarks on "overcrowding," the pope said, "This is why you devour and fight one another, make war and even kill one another as you exchange blows."

    The pope called a council at Clermont, among other reasons, in order to curb the feudal wars that have been wracking Europe. Now, it seems that the pope intends to make peace at home by urging the battling knights into a war abroad, as early as the coming summer.

    To some hearers, the pope's argument made logical sense. In the main, however, the pope was not talking reason, but faith. He made it clear that this foreign war would be a holy war. His sermon, which effectively ended the Council of Clermont, was made more stirring by his frequent references to the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to the Holy Redeemer. At one dramatic moment, the pope said, "Lo, I see before you, leading you to His war, the standard bearer who is invisible, Christ."

Soldiers of Christ

       Almost on cue, a tall, strikingly handsome man made his way to the platform and asked for a command in this new army of God. A papal aide said this was Adhemar of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, and the author of a popular hymn, Salve Regina.

    With a hint of a smile, the pope leaned down and blessed Adhemar, and, with an upraised palm, motioned for him to stand and face the crowd. Papal aides said this was a sign that the pope would dispense this bishop from the normal strictures against clerics taking up arms in any cause, and that he would lead the "soldiers of Christ" to Jerusalem.

    At this, one of the band of cardinals standing on the platform with the pope led the crowd in a chanting of the Confiteor, a Latin prayer in which the assembly confessed their sins "to almighty God, to blessed Mary ever virgin, to holy Michael the archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and to all the saints."

 A Holy War

       When they were finished, the pope absolved the entire gathering with one sweeping sign of the cross.

    Though Pope Urban's mentor, Gregory VII, had dreamed of sending armed pilgrims to Jerusalem, papal aides said this was the first time that any pope had ever issued a call to holy war. A pilgrim from Normandy, however, pointed out that Pope Leo IX had himself led what he called "a holy war" against a marauding Norman army in Italy some forty years ago in 1053. The Norman said he was surprised, but pleased, to discover that these same Normans were now being asked to fight in the papal army against Islam.

    Sources close to the pope said they had suspected the pope had been mulling this historic initiative for some time. No pope, they said, had ever traveled this far from Rome, and never before to France. "With Guibert on the throne of Peter," said one of them, who asked not to be identified, "His Holiness had to do something to consolidate his power. Here in France, he has friends."

    Pope Guibert, now firmly in power in Rome, and Pope Urban II, visiting in France, each claims the papacy today. Each shows solid political support -- Guibert from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, Urban from a solid bloc of cardinals (who elected him three years ago in a conclave at Terracina so that he could carry on the reforms begun by Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII).

       Urban also derives moral (and, it is said, substantial financial) support from the Benedictine monks at Cluny, the richest monastery in Christendom. Born 42 years ago to a noble family in Chatillon-sur-Marne, Urban was once a member of the Benedictine Order at Cluny. He was re-assigned to Rome and moved quite naturally into the diplomatic corps of Gregory VII, who appointed him cardinal-archbishop of Ostia at age 36. Though based in Rome, Urban has kept close ties with Cluny. And the power and wealth of Cluny may figure further in Urban's future.

Unbelievers Control Sepulcher

    The pope summoned a general council in southern France ostensibly to extend "the Truce of God," and to correct current abuses in the church, such as the selling of church offices and the proliferating number of priests who have taken wives or concubines.

    Some were surprised to hear him call today for a holy war against Islam, a plan which the pope did not share with anyone until he had safely crossed into France. Now, said a source who asked not to be identified, "a war against the foreign devils will draw a good many more resources to Urban's side." The source said the Normans who now occupy Sicily and other parts of Italy will be sure to join in the holy war, and, he suspected, so will the seafaring merchants of Venice, and the arms dealers of Pisa and Genoa.

    Other sources who were with Urban at the Council of Piacenza last year said they were less surprised by the call for holy war against Islam. At Piacenza, they said, the pope had received a messenger from the Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius I Comnenus, asking for assistance from Christians of the West in a military effort to regain lands lost to the Seljuk Turks.

    The same sources said the pope believes that giving military aid to Alexius may be a way of achieving ecclesiastical unity with Eastern Christians.

   The Seljuk Turks, according to pilgrims returning from the Middle East, have seized control of the Byzantine cities of Nicaea and Antioch and taken Jerusalem from the Fatamids of Cairo.

    Jerusalem has been under Moslem control for almost four centuries, and its leaders have always granted freedom of worship to Christians living there (while charging them a special tax in the bargain). But the Seljuk Turks represent an evil new force in the Middle East, according to one papal aide, who added, "And they are, after all, unbelievers, unbelievers who are in control of Christ's Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem."

    Jerusalem was never more on the pope's lips than it was today. Toward the end of his talk, the pope evoked the image of the Holy City, "a land watered by Christ's blood."  He referred to Jerusalem as "the kingdom of God now laid waste by a degenerate race, servants to devils."

    As the crowd dispersed today, the words "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" were on the lips of many. One knot of clerics pointed to a cloud formation in the hazy Eastern sky. "It's Jerusalem! Jerusalem!" they cried. "A sign from God."

    Many others took up the call.

** *

               Urban's call to sacred violence hardly struck his medieval Christians as strange. Medieval liturgy and medieval preaching -- which filled the peoples' lives then as the mass media fills ours today -- found ample precedent for holy war in the stories of the Old Testament. They believed that the ancient Israelites fought holy wars at God's command. But they were wrong. Modern Biblical scholars tell us that the point of the Old Testament accounts is not that the ancient Israelites fought battles in God's name, but that they and the nation of Israel came to terrible grief in fighting them. "The real lessons," says David Noel Freedman, a ranking American Biblical scholar and editor of the Anchor Bible, "come not so much from the stories of the Israelites smiting the Philistines in battle, but from the prophets who take a very jaundiced view of their leaders' pretensions."

             But the Jews didn't invent holy war. Holy wars are as old as recorded history itself

             Some 4,000 years before Christ, the Sumerian city-state was a theocracy, ruled by the god of the city. Later, kingship developed among the Sumerians, and the king became the god's viceroy. Battles fought on behalf of this king, then, became battles "for the god's viceroy." Suddenly, "the god's viceroy" found recruiting young men for his wars a bit easier. The Egyptians took the scam one step further. The leaders of 29th century Egypt were better than god's mere viceroys, they became gods in their own right. When the pharaoh said, "Let's make war," that was the voice of God, or, at least, of a god. Under orders from their gods, then, or their gods' viceroys, the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians could weave war and worship in the same essential act.

Today, moderns pride themselves on not being taken in by this kind of flim-flam. We are not living in an age of faith, but of reason. But when we talk about war, we need to delude ourselves, to tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with land, or oil, or trade advantages or political power or sheer historical hatred. We delude ourselves most successfully when we take a religious stance. Wars that are called holy still rage today  -- in the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland. For those who do not understand why the U.S is lining up against Iraq (almost alone among the nations of the West), here is an answer: "We're fighting a holy war."

             This was America's unconscious religion for most of the 20th century. For 40 years during the War that was called Cold, the U.S. waged a holy war against the Soviet Union. In his famous "evil empire" speech to a national convention of evangelicals on March 8, 1983, in Orlando, Florida, Pres. Ronald Reagan gave the game away by plagiarizing Urban's words of holy war, using essentially the same images that inflamed the hearts of those who raised the papal banner in 1095. Pres. Reagan decried Communism as "the focus of evil in the modern world" and asked for support of his arms buildup, designed to curb "the aggressive impulses of an evil empire." He praised his audience of ministers, "who are keeping America great by keeping her good," and warned them not to "label both sides equally at fault." This fight with the Soviet Union, he said, is a "struggle between right and wrong and good and evil." He quoted Whittaker Chambers, who wanted America to counter Communism's faith in Man with the Western World's faith in God. He quoted the prophet Isaiah, who had written about the people renewing their strength from the Lord and mounting up "with wings as eagles." And he quoted Thomas Paine's eschatological vision: "We have it within our power to begin the world over again."

             With these holy words, Pres. Reagan was not simply telling the ministers in Orlando what he thought they wanted to hear. He believed it, every word of it. But he had an ulterior motive, acknowledged by his aides, and duly noted by the American press. In his evil empire speech, Pres. Reagan was making a calculated effort to win back general public support against a nuclear freeze resolution pending in the U.S. House of Representatives (which would eventually pass, 278 to 149, on May 4, 1983) and for a rapid $1.6 trillion buildup in military hardware that was now beginning to erode. Just two weeks before, in the issue of March 7,Time magazine, never a journal to quibble over Pres. Reagan's hard line against the Soviet Union, had published an 11-page cover story crying alarm over "runaway weapons costs" and urging "a new look at military planning."

             The Time article reflected current public opinion -- that the Pentagon was wasting taxpayer dollars, not only on $600 coffee pots, and $1,000 toilet seats, but on high tech military hardware. Examples: B-1B bombers, at $285 million each, $17 million helicopters, M-1 tanks, at $2.7 million a copy, and two more $3.5 billion aircraft carriers. Time 's verdict: these systems weren't working well, and they wouldn't help fight future battles.

             In wake of press criticism such as this, Reagan's advisers told reporters by way of background, "We need to give a better justification for our military plans." The best way to do that, they said, was to "emphasize once again the threat of Soviet expansionism." The president did even better than that. He reminded the nation that we were fighting a holy war.

             God was on our side, and God would be there for the rest of Reagan's days in office. His administration continued to lay out $300 billion a year on the military, and found excuses, some of them contradictory, for not nailing down an agreement with the Soviet Union for arms control, while Reagan and his rhetoricians went on with talk of holy war. And the American people continued to buy this talk, because the president was giving overt expression to something deeper, but hidden -- to our faith in America, a faith that many Americans have fallen into almost without knowing it.

             As Mircea Eliade put it in The Sacred and the Profane,

...the majority of men `without religion' still hold to pseudo-religions and degenerated mythologies. There is nothing surprising in this, for... profane man is the descendant of homo religiosus and he cannot wipe out his own history -- that is, the behavior of his religious ancestors which has made him what he is today. This is all the more true because a great part of his existence is fed by impulses that come to him from the depths of his being, from the zone that is called "the unconscious."

             All of history has helped groove the way we think -- so that a modern scholar, Ernest Becker, could maintain, "All wars are religious wars," and a modern sociologist, Hugh D. Duncan, could report, "We march to death in the name of God, country, ideology, destiny, or way of life."

             But as we march, we are caught up in a myth, melding the primitive forces of religion with something equally primitive, something that Norman O. Brown has called the deadly serious "game of Eros and Thanatos." It is a myth that can turn into a deadly delusion -- as it did in the Crusades, as it did in the Cold War, as it is doing now in the fight against Iraq.


             The Crusades, to be sure, made an undeniable contribution to the growth of Western civilization. They put the people of Western Europe on the march. These were people who, historians say, hardly ever left their isolated little valleys; they might meet perhaps a hundred persons during the course of an entire lifetime. Now thousands would set out on an armed pilgrimage that would take them thousands of miles from home. Those who didn't lose their lives on that march came home with new tastes, new ideas, new ways of being. The first of the Crusaders left a Europe still stuck in something historians once called the Dark Ages. The last of them returned to a continent beginning to bud  -- and blossom into the Renaissance. Marshall W. Baldwin, a noted American medieval scholar, wrote that the Crusades left us with another enduring legacy -- the rhetoric of holy war.    Give credit to Pope John XXIII for linking up the rhetoric of Crusades with the rhetoric of the Cold War. In a conversation with reporters from Time< magazine in August 1962, the pope said he wanted to stop the holy war against Communism. The reporters were shocked. For some time now, the Church had been a bulwark against Communism. The phrase had become a cliché. Pope Pius XI had written an encyclical in 1937 condemning "Atheistic Communism." His successor, Pius XII, ordered up extra prayers at the end of every Mass around the world "for the conversion of Russia." Now another pope was saying he wanted to stop that. La crociata. Pope John tasted the word, then spat it out like an unripe olive. La crociata, non si fa piu. "We don't want to have any more crusades."

             The pope's field as a student (and he never stopped being a student) was not theology, but history. In his last post before this one, he had served as Patriarch of Venice, a city soaked with memories of the Crusades. This pope knew about the Crusades, and he didn't approve. As an historian, and a pope, he knew that the Crusades were a cover for an ecclesiastical imperialism that destroyed the unity of the Church -- for almost a thousand years -- and ushered into the world a narrow nationalism that has brought violence to the planet ever since. No wonder Pope John flashed such a look of disapproval, no wonder he rolled the words la crociata so contemptuously on his tongue.

             In the 20th Century, the Church had been pushing another crusade, unofficial this time, against Communism. And this pope wanted no more of it, not in the nuclear age, when a precipitate war could put a premature finis to the human drama.

             To be sure, John XXIII said, Communism is a bad thing. But Communists are people, too, and who knows what will happen if we deal with them as people?

             As a papal legate to more than one country in Eastern Europe, Pope John knew a little about the Cold War. He was trying to get Time , and (Time's readers) to see that we Americans had fallen heir to a fallacious way of thinking consecrated by many centuries of history. This old way of thinking is what Einstein said we had to change -- once we knew how to make an atom bomb: our propensity to deal with the real world in overarching, abstract categories, to think we can cleanse our own most personal fears by scapegoating and stereotyping others, to put good names on bad actions, and to assume that, if we have to enter a war, even a vastly destructive nuclear war, we can emerge from it with something that we could call "a justifying victory" -- for holy wars are not only just wars, they are justifying.

             . In holy wars, the end -- our own noble cause, victory over absolute evil -- justifies us, and justifies any means. "I do not like to hit a village," an American pilot in Vietnam tells an American newspaperman. "You know you are hitting women and children. But you've got to decide that your cause is noble and that the work has to be done."  A holy war allows us to feel good and murder while we feel good, because we do so in the name of something good.

             Naturally enough, we often use a good word as a code name to describe this action. We call it "National Security." Or "Democracy." Or "Americanism." Or "the American way of life." Or "America." But this is nothing new. It was not too long ago that Reichsmarshall Herman Goering, one of Adolph Hitler's chief lieutenants, told his psychiatrist while he was awaiting execution by the Allies at Nuremberg, how the Nazis had used the concept of the holy fatherland to motivate young Germans into uniform:

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why
would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his
life in a war when the best he can get out of
it is to come back to his farm in one piece?
Naturally, the common people don't want war;
neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in
America, nor for that matter in Germany. That
is understood. But after all, it is the leaders
of the country who determine the policy, and it
always a simple matter to drag the people along,
whether it is a democracy or a fascist
dictatorship or a parliament or a communist
dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people
can always be brought to do the bidding of
the leaders. That is easy. All you have to
is tell them they are being attacked and
denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism

                             and exposing the fatherland to danger.

             The word patriotism rings hollow in American ears when it is spoken by a Goering. Are we then to throw out patriotism? No. Patriotism is part of what makes civilization. It is a virtue that springs from our primary love of our own families (which opens our first window of identity) and extends to a love of our city, state or country (which helps give us our sense of collective identity).

             But what about an exaggeration of patriotism that hurts us in the long run, even hurts those patriots who know their warlike moves are done in good (even holy) faith -- until they are caught up short by the consequences of their deeds, blinking and wondering what happened? This is not a virtue, it's a defect-of-a-virtue, a vice.

             There is an obvious word to describe this vice: superpatriotism. But we've heard that word so many times. We hardly even ask what it really means, or what kind of behavior it points to.

             A psychologist would put superpatriotism in the category of a personality disorder called narcissism, "an exaggerated sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, and an inability to recognize the feelings of others, who are often used for one's own self-aggrandizement."

             A theologian would call superpatriotism a corruption of religion, starting with a kind of idolatry and ending with a brand of self-delusion that makes us wholly unaware of the purposes, the motives and even the actions that determine our collective existence.

             Poised to invade Iraq, we tell ourselves we're going there to liberate the people of Iraq, the very people we have held under siege for a dozen years. But at what cost?

             For more than 40 years, we spent $9.3 trillion (in 1989 dollars) on the Cold War -- an arms buildup that did not contribute to our security. Now, in 2003, the same kind of holy war may end up costing another trillion.

             In fact, the spending of all those trillions does not make us feel insecure.  Aside from the root fear of terrorists climbing aboard our commercial jets armed with box cutters, aside from the fear of a nuclear exchange with North Korea (or others), which still abides with many Americans, our running in the arms race has produced nuclear by-products and nuclear waste that has actually given a number of innocent bystanders leukemia (they call them "Downwinders" near Hanford, Washington) and created a nuclear-waste storage problem that will cost us and our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren more trillions of dollars as they try to cope with our blunders for hundreds of years to come.

             here are some cynical souls who maintain that the U.S. needs the rhetoric of holy war for the most utilitarian of reasons: holy war is the fuel that drives the nation's economy, for it keeps millions employed -- in the nation's war factories, in the armed services -- where they can feel filled by both patriotism and profit.

             The notion that the end of the arms race will necessarily lead to large scale and permanent unemployment is a fallacy. As the American businessman Harold Willens demonstrated in The Trimtab Factor, a slender volume published in 1984 at the height of Pres. Reagan's evil empire hysteria, U.S. investment in the arts of peace would be a far better paying proposition. Ten million dollars invested in a missile is ten million down a rat hole. Ten million invested in education will make a better nation for generations to come, as students today rebuild America's cities tomorrow, reconstruct the nation's crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, railroads, water and sewer systems), create new rapid rail transit systems, clean up our lakes and rivers and streams, find cures for cancer and AIDS, export American agricultural technology so that starving nations can begin learning to feed themselves. The list could go on and on.

             Power in today's world is economic, not military. Yet we put the label "sacred mission" on every cockamamie kind of military hardware -- more B-1 bombers, and B-2s, too, more MIRV missiles, Midgetmans, Peacekeepers, TOWs, more General Sherman tanks, more ELF radar, more new chemical bombs called Bigeyes, all of which have had as much to do with profit and power as with patriotism.

             So how do we cut through the self-delusion? We might try to gain some insight by learning from history, or, as Elie Wiesel, our Nobel Prize winning storyteller, would say, by exercising memory.

             In effect, that is what Pope John XXIII was doing when he talked with the reporters from Time at Castel Gandolfo in August 1962. He recalled the Crusades, and cited the Crusades as an historical disaster that we could use as a cautionary tale for our own times. It may not be easy for Americans to see the immediate connection. Almost by definition, people caught in a delusion do not see, not because they cannot, but because they will not. Perhaps we can get a better fix on who and what we are, as a nation, by looking, first, at another delusional system, located in an empire that existed a long time ago, in a land far far away.


             The Crusaders told themselves they were taking up the Cross for Jesus. But that was a delusion. We can see what a delusion by comparing how the Crusading armies started out with the way they ended. They had a presumably holy inspiration. (After all, who would challenge the vision of a pope?) Then, acting on that inspiration, in a presumably just war, we might expect their generals to fight fair -- keep their word, provide for prisoners, treat innocent bystanders in humane ways. We might even expect them to work out a truce leading to a reign of justice and peace.

             In the Crusades, we saw nothing of the sort.

             In execution and outcome, the Crusades were a series of personal and historical and geo-political and ecclesiastical disasters, and their baneful repercussions reverberate through the corridors of history. If Jesus had been an observer in the front lines of the Crusades, I could hear him ask, incredulously, "You did all this for Me?"


     The People's Crusade. While Pope Urban II made his way around France in 1095 and 1096, continuing to issue his call for holy war, an itinerant monk from Orleans named Peter followed the beat of his own drummer. He began urging the people to "take the cross" and follow him to Jerusalem. Peter looked like a hermit -- he wore a gray woolen hood and a monk's robe that flapped around his ankles -- but he spearheaded the action of his times. He was a free lance preacher of spellbinding eloquence who made his way by donkey through France and into the Rhineland, he and an associate called Walter the Penniless, gathering up an army of some 15,000 peasants and bums, who felt less like peasants and bums once they were pinned with crossed red ribbons. According to one medieval scholar, this was, historically, "the first step in the direction of a [military] uniform." Wearing "a uniform," they had the status of Cruciati, which means "crossed." It was a term that was later translated into the English word "Crusaders."

             Peter's mob lived off the land, stealing its food from the farmers in the country, begging or extorting silver from frightened Jewish merchants in the towns. As a kind of warm-up for their anticipated battles in the East, part of Peter's army started to massacre the first "unbelievers" they could find, the Jews of Spier, Worms and Mainz (over objections by the local bishops, who tried to protect several thousand of them, in vain). But these slaughters were not enough to quench the Crusading spirit. At least 500 more Jews perished at Mainz (including Kalonmymos, the chief rabbi), and many hundreds more as Peter's Crusaders pursued their journey through Trier, Metz, Neuss, Wevelinghofen, Eller and Xanten, a zig-zag course set for them by a supposedly sacred goose, whom they followed with a kind of giddy joy.

             On their way to Constantinople (where Pope Urban had bid everyone gather), this pillaging, looting, genocidal mob ran into trouble. At Semlin, the mob killed 4,000 Hungarians and captured a large store of provisions, but it went on to lose thousands of their own in a fierce and chaotic battle with the locals on the road between Belgrade and Sofia. Those Crusaders who were left with Peter  -- about 7,000 -- finally made it to Sofia, where an escort sent by the Emperor Alexius met them and brought them into his city on August 1, 1096.

             Others from the ragtag army kept flooding into Constantinople. The Emperor couldn't get rid of them fast enough, and soon had them deposited across the Bosphorus on the Asiatic shore. They marched along the coast of the Sea of Marmora to Nicomedia, pillaging the countryside as they did so. While Peter returned to Constantinople to seek more supplies from the Emperor, the army split into two. One division ventured as far as Nicaea, whose Seljuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan ibn-Suleiman, pursued them to the castle of Xerigordon and had everyone who did not abjure Christianity slaughtered. The other division, holed up in a port city called Cibotus and waiting for Peter to return, was itching for action. Emboldened by a planted story that their fellows had taken Nicaea and were already dividing the booty among themselves, this troop tumbled toward Nicaea. Only three miles out, they were ambushed in a narrow, wooded valley. The Turks killed some 15,000 of them, and enslaved the younger boys and girls. Some 3,000 managed to reach an old castle by the sea, and held out there until they were rescued by a set of Byzantine battleships, which took them back to Constantinople. And that was the end of The People's Crusade.


             The First Crusade. The Emperor Alexius was understandably wary when another crusading army started arriving from the Balkans in the spring of 1097, but he found some measure of relief to learn that they were fairly well organized under the general command of Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, and of four other leaders, mostly the French and Normans who had been commissioned by Urban II. Alexius had them stay outside the city, allowing a half dozen at a time inside. He heaved a sigh of relief when this rowdy horde crossed the Bosphorus in May.

             With a force of more than 100,000, they conquered Nicaea, Dorylaeum, Antioch and, finally, in July 1099, Jerusalem. They invaded the Temple itself, on horseback, riding through blood which splashed to their knees and bridle-reins, and forced the few Saracens who survived to carry the corpses out of the city, pile them up and burn them. The stench clung to the air of the city for months.

             To the leaders went the spoils. Most of the conquerors settled in, and settled down as colonials in what they called "Outre-mer"  -- the land beyond the sea. They developed a tolerance for the native Syrians, who remained Moslems, and even intermarried with them, and marveled at the fact that peoples whom the pope had told them were "estranged from God" said public prayers five times a day to the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob -- and of Jesus, whom Mohammed, the founder of Islam, had revered as a prophet.


             The Second Crusade. By 1144, however, some forty years later, a new and powerful Moslem leader took back Edessa, one of the Syrian cities that had been conquered by the soldiers of the First Crusade. The news triggered a Second Crusade, proclaimed by Pope Eugenius III.

             Louis VII, king of France, answered the call, and Bernard of Clairvaux preached the necessity of a new expedition, but it came to nought. The Crusaders took an overland route through the Balkans, looting and pillaging as the members of the People's Crusade had done, and molesting even Eastern Christians. The future Frederick Barbarossa is said to have destroyed a Byzantine monastery and slaughtered its monks. Odo de Deuil, a French monk with the army, reported that the Byzantines "were judged not to be Christians, and the Franks considered killing them a matter of no importance."  Again, the Crusaders looted the suburbs of Constantinople, and a fiery Cistercian, Godfrey, bishop of Langers, tried to persuade the French leaders to storm the city, which was "Christian only in name, not in fact." The Crusaders stayed in Constantinople for three weeks, then moved on to Asia Minor, laid siege Damascus but failed to take it. In 1148, they left the Syrian shore, blaming their failure on the Byzantines for not helping them subdue the Saracens.

             Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, and a Middle Eastern scholar, bewailed the Byzantine Empire's lack of zeal for the holy war. In this, he was joined by Suger of St. Denis, the large Benedictine abbey near Paris, Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader of the Cistercians, and Odo de Deuil (who succeeded Suger as abbot at St. Denis). Their sermons indicated they were less interested in routing the Moslems than waging another kind of holy war, against the Christians of Constantinople.


             The Third Crusade. Thirty nine years later, Saladin, leader of a new, unified Moslem kingdom, proclaimed his own jihad against the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, whose leader, Count Raymond III of Tripoli, chose to do battle with him on a rocky hill with two summits near the Sea of Galilee, a place called the Horns of Hattin. On a blistering hot July 4, 1187, the Saladin's forces surrounded the entire military force, slaughtered most of the army and sold the survivors (and their families) to the slave markets and harems of Aleppo. On October 2, Saladin forced the capitulation of Jerusalem itself, 88 years after it was so bloodily taken by the Frankish warriors of the First Crusade.

             The victors were "correct and humane," according to Steven Runciman, the foremost historian of the Crusades. "Not a building was looted," wrote Runciman, "nor a person injured." Saladin allowed the Christians to buy their freedom. But when he saw two columns streaming out of the city, one able to afford the ransom, the other heading into slavery, Saladin and his lieutenants set many hundreds free; they also released every captive husband, and gave silver from their treasury to widows and orphans. Runciman said that Saladin's "mercy and kindness were in strange contrast to the Christian conquerors of the First Crusade."

             The Orthodox Christians remained in Jerusalem, welcoming the tolerance of the Moslems after the ecclesiastical imperialism of the conquering Latins, who had forced their Latin language and ritual on them, certain not only that they would have a better life, but that pilgrims from the West could continue to visit the Holy Places, unmolested, and venerate the relic of the True Cross, as they had been permitted to do for the four centuries preceding the First Crusade.

             It didn't take long for the bad news of Jerusalem's fall to travel to Rome. It was particularly bad news for the pope, because he would be collecting taxes in Jerusalem no longer. Indeed, that pope, Urban III, died of shock, and his successor, Pope Gregory VIII, quickly called for another expedition.

             By May of 1191, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, now almost 70, was leading the largest crusading army yet assembled, overland, and the kings of both England and France, Philip II Augustus and Richard the Lion-heart, who had been fighting each other over disputed lands in France, were coming on, too, by sea.

             But this Crusade, too, would end ignominiously. On a very hot day in an icy Turkish stream, Barbarossa drowned and the bulk of his army turned back home. No one could say whether Barbarossa had fallen in the stream and been taken down by his armor, or whether he had leapt willingly from his horse and died from the shock of the cold water, or drowned in a current that was too swift.

             Richard and Philip laid siege to the principal port city of Acre, an almost impregnable castle, took it over and agreed with Saladin in Jerusalem on terms of a peace treaty. Richard and Philip would accept a ransom of 200,000 gold pieces and the return by Saladin of his Christian prisoners and of the True Cross; in turn, they would release their Saracen prisoners at Acre.

             But Richard Coeur de Lion grew impatient with the negotiations and fearful of his old enemy, King Philip, who, claiming illness, returned to France. Richard had to remain, to bicker with Saladin over the gold-and-prisoner exchange. One day, in a fit of pique over a delay in negotiations, he had 2,700 Moslem survivors of the garrison at Acre slaughtered -- soldiers, wives and children.

             Richard then left Acre for an assault on Jerusalem. Saladin's forces skirmished with Richard's right up the coast to a wide plain at Arsuf, just north of Jaffa, where Richard's cavalry routed the Saracen bowmen. Richard re-captured Jaffa, but was reluctant to press on to Jerusalem. If he took the Holy City, what then? His Crusaders would fulfill their vows and return home. Could the remaining forces of the old Latin kingdom hold out against the united might of Islam? He doubted it.

             Richard fought and won one more ferocious battle outside the walls of Jaffa, then entered into a treaty with Saladin (who had so admired Richard's courage in that last battle that he sent him two fresh horses so he could go on fighting).

             According to the treaty, the Moslems would remain in control of the Holy City (and try to maintain peace between the querulous Christian prelates of East and West). Queen Isabella and King Henry of Champagne, the nephew of Coeur de Lion, would carry on as rulers over the Latin kingdom at Acre. And Richard, sick from fever and from the news that his evil brother John was plotting against him, would return home to England. On his way back, he was captured in Austria and held for a huge ransom, then spent the last five years of his life fighting for his inheritance in France. He never contemplated another Crusading journey to the East.

             To Runciman, Coeur de Lion was "a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier." In retrospect, he was the epitome of a holy warrior: a man who could order the massacre of innocents without a qualm, and violate his word with the same aplomb -- because he was sure of the rightness of his cause, to rescue Jerusalem and its holiest relic, the remnant of the True Cross, a hunk of wood which may or may not have been the timber soaked with the blood of his crucified Lord, but the very thought of which was enough to bring tears of religious consolation to the same eyes that flashed at the sight of an infidel's blood.


             The Fourth Crusade. Another unmitigated disaster  -- for the Crusading idea, for the cause of Christian unity, for Christendom itself. Pope Innocent III, barely 37 when he was elected pope in 1198, gave the call for this Crusade, urging those who were able to hurry to the Jerusalem, and those who were not able to contribute money. Each Crusader, each donor might expect full remission of his sins for giving "aid to his Creator and Redeemer." Buying remission of one's sins meant that the buyer could, he was told, go straight to heaven upon his death, without a stopover in Purgatory. The Church called these cancellations of punishment due to sin "indulgences."  The popes who followed Innocent used the proceeds from these indulgences to build their Roman monuments. The opulence of one of them, St. Peter's in Rome, would later enrage a visiting Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. The experience had more than a little to do with Luther's resolve to begin an overdue ecclesiastical reform. And so, though holy war became "the health of the state" for the popes, it also contributed to the dismemberment of the Church -- it brought on the Protestant Reformation.

             This Crusade's "aid to the Redeemer" took the form of murder, rape and the destruction of the largest, richest city in Christendom. Instead of proceeding to attack Saladin in Egypt, as planned, the men of the Fourth Crusade became entangled in the commercial and political intrigues that then raged between the two most powerful cities of that time, Constantinople and Venice. Egged on by Venetian business interests, they ended up invading and destroying Constantinople, which had served as the capital of Christian civilization for nine centuries. They melted down or carted away most of its art treasures, raped or killed several thousand citizens, who were not Turks but Christians, and illustrated, not only the irony of the term "holy war," but the greed that masked the pious declarations. Once they had made their plunder, they forgot their holy war (helped in this by Peter Capuano, the pope's legate, who absolved everyone from their vow to go to Jerusalem).

             The Venetians (who had negotiated for three-eighths of the booty in return for their assistance) had good enough taste to snatch some of the more spectacular art treasures stolen from Santa Sofia and two imperial palaces and take them back to Venice, where many of the treasures, including two magnificent bronze horses, can still be seen today.

             The Frank and Flemish soldiers preferred to melt down their share of the city's priceless bronzes and turn them into ingots. Then they went on a tear for three days. According to Runciman, "They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying everything they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine-cellars for their refreshment." They gutted the great church of Santa Sofia, set a prostitute to singing ribald songs on the throne of the patriarch, ravished nuns in their convents."

             Their Christian devotion took an apparent holiday -- but only for a time. After their orgy was over, they got back in good grace with themselves by gathering up all the sacred relics they could find. The holiest warriors, the prelates, abbots and bishops who were the chaplains of the Crusade, seemed the most conscientious collectors. Martin, a Cistercian abbot and one of the original preachers of this Crusade, returned to his Alsatian abbey with an arm of St. James, part of the head of St. Cyprian, the stone on which Jacob rested, a portion of the True Cross and some drops of Christ's Precious Blood. The bishop of Soissons came home with the arm of John the Baptist, the head of St. Stephen, and (he claimed) the very finger which doubting Thomas had poked into the side of His Lord. Fragments of the True Cross ended up in England (at Bromholm in Norfolk), Germany (at Limburg an der Lahn), and France (at the Benedictine abbey of Corbie). Conrad, bishop of Halberstadt near Magdeburg, returned to Germany with some Cross fragments and some drops of Christ's Blood, and pieces of Christ's burial linens. Cardinal Peter Capuano, a papal legate, took the entire body of St. Andrew home with him to Amalfi.

             Several of the Crusaders each ended up believing he had come into possession of the skull of John The Baptist. But that was hardly less of a marvel than the possession of one of Christ's eyelashes; it was part of a store of relics that were given by the emperor Henry to the abbey of Clairvaux. Christ's full Crown of Thorns landed in the vault of a Venetian banker (as collateral on a loan to Baldwin II, whom the Venetians had crowned as emperor of Constantinople) and it was purchased a year later by St. Louis, king of France, along with some Cross-fragments and the Holy Lance that had pierced Christ's side; in 1245, the king enshrined them in the Church of Saint-Chapelle in Paris, and later distributed pieces of the treasures to other churches in Europe.

             At first, the pope was delighted with the news of Constantinople's fall, as relayed in a note from King Baldwin, who told Innocent he was a loyal son of the Church, that he had taken Constantinople for the West, and had even introduced the Latin liturgy there. Innocent pronounced this "a splendid miracle." He called on all men to support Baldwin and expressed his hope that the conquest of Constantinople would help in the liberation of the Jerusalem.

             But then the pope heard further details about the sack of the city. He was furious. He said the Crusaders had procured for the West the wrath of Byzantines forever, and he blamed his own cardinal-legate, Peter Capuano, for blessing the attack and then absolving the Crusaders from their vow to fight in the Jerusalem. At least that was the official story.

             Perhaps Peter Capuano understood the pope's real intentions better than the pope did. Innocent III knew what time it was -- time for the popes to become monarchs (a process set in motion by his predecessors, starting with Gregory VII). It was Gregory VII who had uncovered some ancient documents called the Isidorian Decretals (they were nothing but forgeries, as modern scholars have proven) to claim spiritual supremacy for himself and all his successors over the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, as well as temporal dominion over Rome and the entire Western Empire. Urban II, a protégé of Gregory VII, went on to demonstrate the utility of holy war as an instrument of papal, temporal power.

             But Innocent III ran the idea into the ground. By most accounts, Innocent III, Lando da Sessa, was one of the greatest of the popes. But those accounts were produced by scholars who were using old, triumphalist norms. Since Vatican II, Catholics who consider themselves as part of a servant church would have to see Innocent III as an arrogant elitist who was in love with abstractions. He had the best family connections in Rome. He studied law at Bologna, and philosophy and theology at Paris, and his vast learning compelled him to inaugurate a heresy-hunting mechanism called the Inquisition, and write laws that required the Jews of Rome to wear a distinctive garb, stay off the streets during Holy Week, and disqualify themselves for any public office that would give them jurisdiction over Christians.

             This was a pope who enhanced his power by enlisting his troops (or the troops of those who found an alliance with the pope useful to them) in a series of holy wars against other of his enemies -- far removed from the Moslem world. In 1209, Innocent encouraged King Waldemar II of Denmark to take part in a holy war against some idol-worshipping tribes along the Baltic, this on the heels of a successful crusade, in 1207 and 1208, against the Albigensian heretics in the Languedoc Province of southern France. He called these heretics "little foxes... forever destroying the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts," and urged King Philip II of France to "eliminate" them and "vindicate the injury to Jesus Christ." Philip's forces did so, taking their orders from a papal legate, the Cistercian abbot of Citeaux. They wiped out the Cathars -- and, for good measure, any other Christians who happened to be around them.

             Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff quote an almost passionless account of the atrocity by Fernand Niel, a modern French historian, that illustrates the righteousness of the savagery that attended this Crusade:

The Crusaders departed from Montpelier on the twentieth of July 1209 and in due course their advance guard drew up before the walls of Beziers. Through the intermediary of their bishop, the town was ordered to surrender up the Cathar heretics dwelling in their midst; but the inhabitants refused, and the Crusader army took up its positions for a regular siege.... The massacre began. The terrified townspeople took refuge in the churches, the priests displayed their sacred habits, the church bells sounded, but nothing could stem the fury of the Crusaders. Seven thousand persons were massacred in the single church of the Madeleine. Pillage succeeded massacre, and then arson. The city burned for two days. No one was spared. Heretics, Catholics, women, infants, all were murdered....

The leaders of the Catholic forces applauded this miraculous victory and perhaps exaggerated the number of victims. As many as 100 thousand have been claimed; but 30 thousand would seem a more reasonable number. It is certain, however, that all the inhabitants were slain. And in the course of the massacre occurred an event which has provoked extended discussion. When Arnaud-Amalric, Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how the heretics might be distinguished from the faithful... he replied: "Burn them all. God will know His own!"


             The Children's Crusade. This was a zealous time. Even children came down with the crusading fever, like chicken pox or the measles. In 1212, a 12-year-old shepherd boy named Stephen started preaching his own crusade in France. He said that Christ himself had appeared to him while he was tending his sheep and urged him to lead a band of children to Jerusalem. Thousands of youngsters from France and Germany, their numbers growing as the army marched along, set out to free the Holy Sepulcher.

             One group ended up in Marseilles. When the sea did not part for them, as they believed it would, they turned to two kindly Marseilles businessmen, who volunteered to put seven ships at their disposal, and to carry them, free of charge, for the glory of God, to Palestine. Two of the ships were lost with all hands off Sardinia, but the children on the other five boats made it safely to their pre-determined destination, a slave market in Bougie, on the Algerian coast.

             Many others died crossing the Alps on foot, and another band of children that made it as far as the Adriatic Sea (only to be disappointed when that sea did not part for them) were lost or set upon in their wandering journey back to the Rhineland.

             The fate of these children, victims not of a holy war but of its holy words, and victims, too, of the unholy greed and unholy rapacity that seem to ooze in and fill the cracks of every warlike structure, should have triggered a reappraisal of the rhetoric, particularly by the pope, who was the principal spokesman for holy war in these decades. It did not. Pope Innocent III saw everything and saw nothing. He received one contingent of the children who had gotten as far as Rome, told them he was moved by their piety, and advised they go home. But he did nothing to dampen the general zeal. They should grow up, he said, then fulfill their sacred vows to fight for the Holy Cross.

             Historians tell us that few of them ever got home again. But Innocent III had other concerns. In 1213, he had his people out recruiting for another crusade.


     The Fifth Crusade. Innocent III proclaimed this Crusade at the Fourth Lateran Council. He designated preachers, commissioned troubadours, put embargos on the transport of military supplies to the Moslems, and attempted to settle a feud between Pisa and Genoa, cities that had been growing rich on Crusade business for more than a century (and who were now growing greedy). The pope took ill on that journey, and died at Perugia on July 16, 1216.

             But his successor, Honorius III, was more than eager to carry on Innocent's foreign policy, this despite two pieces of information that should have given him pause.

             First, recruiting for the Crusade was not going well in Europe. In France, papal legates were scraping the bottom of the barrel, signing up old men and children, lepers, cripples and women of ill fame. A large Scandinavian expedition dwindled when King Ingi II of Norway, who had "taken the Cross" (that is, donned the uniform of a Crusader), died. King Andrew II of Hungary, who took the Cross in the hopes that he could assume control over the Kingdom of Jerusalem (his queen was the niece of the Latin emperor of Constantinople), was begging off because of civil war in his own land.

             Second, one of the pope's legates in Palestine reported that the local Latins had little enthusiasm for a Crusade. Two decades of peace had been good for business -- for both the Franks and the Moslems. Merchandise was filling the warehouses of the eastern ports, and there was a fine future for the Mediterranean trade, if only there was peace.

             But no. The pope wanted war. Finally, by the fall of 1217, he had an army ready, under the bumbling leadership of a tactless Spanish cardinal named Pelagius Galvani. But this Crusade, too, seemed off-target. Instead of attaining its stated goal, the ever-recurring theme of "freeing Jerusalem," this Crusade had an aim that would today be described as "geo-political." Translation: the pope wanted Egypt. It was the Moslems' richest province, and the base for their fleet in the Mediterranean that was preying on trading vessels from Genoa and Venice.

             The Crusaders spent two years in battles and skirmishes near the mouth of the Nile, losing thousands of men to the swords of the Moslems, to storms and a plague, and to their own ineptness. Their effort to take over the walled city of Damietta, two miles up the Nile's east bank, with a large wooden tower mounted on two ships, reads like the script for a Max Sennett comedy.

             In August 1219, a simple, gentle Christian friar named Francis of Assisi showed up to witness the rout of an Italian regiment attacking the Sultan's camp near Damietta. Brother Francis undertook a peace mission to the Sultan al-Kamil, who received him kindly. Runciman says the saint's intervention was not needed, "for al-Kamil was himself inclined toward peace."  They called a truce, and al-Kamil made an offer the Crusaders couldn't refuse: if they would evacuate Egypt, he would return to them what was left of the True Cross, and they could have Jerusalem, all of central Palestine and Galilee.

             The French and German Crusaders were all for it. Cardinal Pelagius said no  -- on the grounds that it was "wrong to come to terms with the infidel." He had other, more mundane reasons. He wanted to secure Damietta as a base for the trading interests of the city-states in the Italian boot. He took it, on November 5, 1219, when his scouts discovered the entire garrison was enfeebled by a plague, but sat there for almost two years, trying to referee the bickering among his multi-national forces, waiting for reinforcements from Frederick II of Germany -- and again turning down an offer of Jerusalem from the Sultan. When some of the reinforcements did arrive (but with Frederick at their head), Pelagius led a mighty force up the Nile toward Cairo  -- some 630 ships, 5,000 knights, 4,000 archers, and 40,000 infantrymen.

             Overconfident in their sheer numbers, they advanced too far up the river without covering their rear. Once they realized they were surrounded and outmanned, they attempted a chaotic retreat down a swollen Nile and along its flooded banks, lost thousands of men, and sued for peace. The Fifth Crusade was over.

             Runciman writes: "...nothing had been gained and much lost, men, resources and reputations. Fear of the Christians from the West raised a new wave of fanaticism in Islam... fresh disabilities were put upon the local Christians, both Melkites and Copts."


             Why go on? Subsequent Crusades came to similarly disastrous ends -- and it didn't seem to matter whether the leaders were saints or sinners. The Sixth Crusade under Frederick II (quarreling all the while with the pope, over who had the say-so) led to no major battles, and ended in 1229 with a 10-year-truce in Jerusalem. The Seventh Crusade, which began in 1248 under the leadership of the saintly King Louis IX of France, ended two years later in Egypt with the capture of the king himself.

             New forces took charge in Islam, replacing the chivalry of Saladin with the savagery of the Mamluks, who conquered most of the cities in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and massacred most of the Christians there. This brought pleas for aid from the West. Louis, who felt responsible for the collapse, launched the Eighth Crusade in 1267. It ended two years later in North Africa with Louis's death by disease.

             Others would attempt to launch other Crusades. The last Crusading force to do battle, more than 100,000 men, the largest Crusading army ever, gathered from all of Western Europe and marched into Bulgaria. But this army fell to the Turks, and almost all of them were slaughtered in battle on some hills near Nicopolis, some 200 miles up the Danube River from the Black Sea.

             In 1463, after the final fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Pope Pius II made the last holy call, but none of the Christian kings or princes of the West would answer. The pope ended up financing and leading the Crusade himself, but he found there were few to lead. On his way to Ancona, where he intended to join his papal fleet, he found the roads filled with his sailors and soldiers, who had deserted their ships, fleeing home on foot. He went on to inspect his empty galleys, and died gazing at them on August 14, 1464.

             Thus, the results of holy war. Pope after pope, from Urban II (1088-1099) to Gregory X (1271-1276) to Pius II (1458-1464), might have wondered about the morality of these foreign wars -- there being nothing redemptive about their outcomes -- if only they had not convinced themselves that they were fighting "for Christ."  But, given that noble goal, they kept plunging ahead, urging sacrifice on their people, goodly nobles and commons alike, while their own power grew and grew.

             The people paid the costs. But it was easy for the crusading popes to overlook these as they counted the benefits to themselves and to the papacy. The popes who soon followed them would give silent testimony to these benefits by the grandeur of their lives. These were the Renaissance popes, the Medicis and the Borgias and the della Roveres and the Farneses, who lived more splendidly than any king, and, as vicars of Christ on earth, with more honor. Surely they must have paused every now and then to tell God how grateful they were.


            & The Crusades were "nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God." The judgment is a harsh one, but it comes from a man most qualified to make it. He was the Englishman Steven Runciman, knighted in the mid-1950s for his marvelous, scholarly, readable, three-volume history of the Crusades. To Runciman, the Crusades were a deception, and one that was all the more radical because it was probably not a knowing, cynical one, but more on the order of a self-deception, which often leads to self-righteousness. To the self-righteous, any of a number of righteous deeds can follow.

             But first come the righteous words, the words that make a war holy. What words? Consider for a moment more the speech of Pope Urban II at Clermont, to see how war becomes holy. First, he establishes the enemy as evil, or, better, godless. Then, he identifies the cause  -- killing a godless enemy --  as God's will. Doing God's will will make his soldiers holy; in fact, he says, if any loses his life, he will save it. With a papal blessing, he will go straight to heaven. He will signalize his godliness by taking a vow    -- and symbolize it by wearing Christ's cross.

             The enemy is evil on several counts. In the first place, he has seized a place the pope calls "holy" -- holy because it was land that Christ, the God-become-man, had walked on and watered with his redeeming blood. For that reason, the Moslems are "an accursed race, a barbarous people, estranged from God."

             But these people were only accursed because the pope has called them so.

             And they were not so barbarous in the popular, pejorative sense of the word, that is, cruel or savage, as were the pope's own troops. This was simply a case of papal ignorance. In fact, the people of the Middle East were, at the time, more highly cultured than the people of Western Europe. The Egyptians were wearing spun cotton and playing stringed instruments centuries before the Normans were invading England, clad in animal skins and beating on drums. And the papyri of scholars and mathematicians and philosophers of Egypt were already becoming brittle when Thomas Aquinas started to write his Summa. Even in war, the best of the Arab generals were far more compassionate than the best of the Crusaders.

             But if Urban II was thinking barbarous in its primary sense  -- it means "foreign" or "different" -- he was telling his audience something far more than he intended, not about the Arabs, but about himself. Of course the Moslems were different. That shouldn't have made them sinful, and need not have marked them for slaughter. What made them different? Principally, said Urban, their godlessness. But they're weren't godless at all; they just didn't describe God as the pope did. They did not understand (and did not believe in) the pope's Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

             It is a common Church teaching that no one can believe without the gift of faith. Pope Urban II presumably knew that in 1095. And yet, he urged his Christian knights to go to Jerusalem and kill the ungodly -- those who hadn't been given the gift. Killing an ungodly enemy: that was one thing that made a war holy.

             Not only was the cause holy, fighting in that cause was supposed to make its warriors holy, too. The pope made that clear from the start, by promising the Crusaders eternal life, the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, for their efforts. To medieval citizens, so imbued with the faith by practically everything in their culture, this was the ultimate, lasting reward.

             "The temporal punishment due to sin" meant not only the penance imposed by this or that confessor in this life, it also meant a stay in Purgatory, a place of suffering just like the sufferings of Hell, until a person's sins had been burned away. In the peculiar economy of salvation taught in the Church until late in the 20th Century, popes could commute that sentence in part or in whole. They gave indulgences of seven days, or 30 days, or seven years, "time off" for uttering certain prayers or performing certain penances. Or they went whole hog with a plenary indulgence; that abrogated the entire sentence -- whatever that was, and whatever that meant. And they told themselves they could do this because they had control of the treasury of grace and merit.

             Modern Catholics are embarrassed by this calculating, egocentric approach to Christian destiny. But medieval popes claimed the power of the keys to this heavenly treasure of merit (which is why tourists in Rome see the crossed keys in every papal coat of arms). As successors to the chief of the Apostles, the popes relied on the words of Jesus Christ Himself, who told Peter, punning on the Latin word for rock, petrus, "Upon this rock I will build my church. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. Whose sins you shall absolve, they are absolved." With power like that, they could promise the Crusaders a quick ticket to heaven. For a military hero, that was better, much better than a Congressional Medal of Honor.

             So the Crusaders learned that holy wars were holy because they had 1) a holy cause, and 2) a holy end. What else? The Crusaders also took something that sounded very much like an oath of office: a holy vow. "Taking the Cross," as they put it, would make them true "soldiers of Christ." Runciman says, "For three centuries there was hardly a potentate in Europe who did not at some time vow with fervor to go on the Holy War. Jerusalem was on the mind of every man and woman."

             Jerusalem was the battle cry. It was at the heart of the Crusading idea. And it would continue to inflame the heart of every Crusader, even and especially the purest Christian hearts   -- such as the little boys and girls of the Children's Crusade who set out singing the Salve Regina at the top of their lungs and ended, the luckiest ones, serving as the slaves and concubines of the men most able to buy them from their captors.

             But scholars have pointed out that there was a good deal of ambiguity about the term Jerusalem. Did the Crusaders think they were heading toward an earthly or a heavenly city? Some of the rhetoric would seem to indicate they were being sold on the idea that "salvation" would be there waiting for them upon their arrival in Jerusalem. Others may have believed that their Lord Jesus Christ himself would be waiting for them there, and that they would have a front row seat for the ultimate in street theater: the Second Coming of Christ. That was the promise. The reality was different. Few of the Crusaders, over three centuries, ever saw Jerusalem. A majority of them died in battles far from the Holy City.

             And for those who did fulfill their holy vow, to get to Jerusalem, what, pray, did they find? A visit to a cave, enshrined in a crumbling Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Jesus, of course, was not there, He was risen. Someone there may have reminded them that the same Jesus who founded His Church on the rock of Peter had also said, "My kingdom is not of this world."


    So, the Crusades were like any war: contention, chaos, killing -- all for power and honor and riches, for Eros and Thanatos, or, for the most banal reason of all: as an antidote to boredom. Nothing makes a war holy -- and the more destructive that war (and the less it achieves its stated goal), the easier it is to see the holiness of that war as a delusion.

             So how can anyone discern the difference? Ignatius Loyola suggested a method in his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, part of what he called his Spiritual Exercises. Does an inspiration come from the good spirit, he asked, or the bad? The Ignatian solution came in a kind of metaphor: he reminded his retreatants that some scorpions are poisonous, some not. We find out which are which, he said, by examining the cauda serpentina, the scorpion's tail. In other words, we see where the inspiration leads. The inspiration for the Crusades led to rape and pillage along the trail, nothing holy in the so-called Holy Land, and a radical change in the papacy itself  -- now not a primacy of service but a primacy of power, with the humble successor of Peter sitting in a palace on the Tiber, surrounded by sycophants and the great wealth that came his way from those who thought they could buy redemption from their sins.

             Returning to the Cold War and looking for its cauda serpentina , we might see that that holy war killed millions, including many innocent bystanders, led the whole world to the brink of annihilation, created a good deal of ancillary damage – and cost both sides a total of $9.3 trillion. The part of it that the U.S. was responsible for almost destroyed countries like Vietnam. Meanwhile, our inner cities in the U.S. and the people who inhabited them suffered a horrible, consequent neglect that they have yet to recover from.

             Who knows what our quick victory over pitifully weak forces will lead to? Surely this, that the rest of the world will tremble before a supernation that can grab off almost total domination of global energy and global communications and global trade – in short, take whatever it wants. The United Nations will seem more irrelevant than ever. Our children will learn that might makes right. Some Americans will no doubt fatten on the war. Others will have died, often enough under friendly fire. No one will receive so much as an indulgence for his or her sins. But some may glory in the crossed red ribbons they get from President Bush.

Kaiser is editor in chief of JustGoodCompany. You can write him personally at: rbkaiser@justgoodcompany.com