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FPRI on Crusaders: Published Summer, 1999

Jerry Pournelle

Sunday, October 08, 2006

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Foreign Policy Research Institute A Catalyst for Ideas

 Night Thoughts - August 1999


 Walter A. McDougall is editor of Orbis, co-director of FPRI's History Academy, and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Promised Land, Crusader State: America's Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

 This essay is adapted from a speech before the Philadelphia Society on April 24, 1999 and is printed here in advance of publication in Orbis, Summer 1999, a journal published for FPRI by JAI Press.



     By Walter A. McDougall


 I have been asked to speak today about "the Crusader State in the twenty-first century," which is to say, something that may not exist in an era that has not yet begun. I can blame only myself for this assignment, since I had the temerity to publish a book about American foreign policy called Promised Land, Crusader State, and to end it with speculations about whether our diplomatic traditions ought to shape the U.S. role in the world in the decades to come. But I am not going to talk about the book, lest I give you an excuse not to read it. All you need to know now is my argument to the effect that Wilsonianism, collective security, promotion of democracy, human rights, and development, assertive multilateralism, enlargement, and so forth are twentieth-century novelties, and far from expressing American exceptionalism, they represent a repudiation of it. From 1776 to the 1890s, U.S. foreign policy clung to four traditions-Liberty at home, Unilateralism abroad, an American System of States, and Expansion across the continent-designed to prevent the outside world from perturbing the growth of America as a Promised Land. And so far from asserting an American mission to reform the world, this old testament of foreign relations specifically precluded "going abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

 In 1898 a new testament of American foreign policy began to be written when, for the first time, the U.S. mounted a white charger and rode off on a crusade to slay the Spanish dragon and save the Cuban damsel in distress. The colonial acquisitions that followed were justified by an ethic of global uplift, as imperialists argued that America had not been raised up to greatness only to hide her lamp under a bushel, but that America now had the means and mission to end violence, export democracy, and promote prosperity in the less fortunate nations under her care. Woodrow Wilson was an avid imperialist, and in World War I he universalized the new American mission in the belief that only the U.S. had the grace and power to pacify a world rent by revolution and war, and create a new world order. Accordingly, Americans invented four new traditions over the course of the twentieth century, representing various strategies for the fulfillment of that noble quest: Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment, and Global Meliorism, or the promotion of democracy, growth, and social reform world-wide.

 Various mugwumps, nationalists, isolationists, and realists periodically warned that crusading zeal might breed arrogance and hubris in American policy, and that a permanent mobilization of American power would erode liberty and civic virtue at home. In the event, the U.S. did great good in the wicked twentieth century, thanks to its willingness to spend blood and treasure to slay imperialism, fascism, and communism. But the U.S. also did much that was bad or just ugly, and did harm itself in the process.

 The question before us after the Cold War, therefore, is whether the time has come to take a rest from crusading, as Jonathan Clarke has advised, and become a normal nation again, as Jeane Kirkpatrick has said. Or whether this unipolar moment makes America all the more the "indispensable nation," and placed on her still greater responsibilities to design, impose, and police some new world order? I will not recite all the eloquent arguments made by advocates of an American "benevolent global hegemony," such as Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, Senator McCain, Joshua Muravchik, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, and Tony Lake. Nor will I recite the eloquent rebuttals to their vision advanced by Clarke and Kirkpatrick, Owen Harries, Robert Kaplan, Michael Mandelbaum, Fareed Zakaria, Samuel Huntington, Charles Maynes, Charles Krauthammer, James Kurth, or even myself.

 I mean instead to do something wildly tangential to the debate over America's future role in the world, but for that reason wildly original. I want to ask what it means to be a Crusader State, whether the U.S. is indeed one, and what the history of the original Crusades can contribute to our current debate. I mean to discuss, not the twenty-first century, but the twelfth and thirteenth.

 Last year we celebrated, or lamented, the hundredth anniversary of our nation's first crusade in the Spanish- American war. So far no one has noted that July 1999 will mark the nine-hundredth anniversary of the original Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem. Preached by Pope Urban II in 1095, the First Crusade was a military success, and inspired future popes, kings, and military orders to launch a score of others against the Muslim world, pagans on Europe's periphery, and heretics inside of Europe. But while the various crucesignata, the soldiers who went into battle with the sign of the cross on their hauberks and shields, justified their campaigns as holy wars in defense of the Catholic faith, their motives-and those of the popes who exhorted them-went far beyond self-defense.

 The eleventh century-the first of the new millennium-was the best and worst of times in Western Europe. On the one hand, the Dark Ages had ended thanks to the Benedictines and the little renaissance promoted at Charlemagne's court. The marauders who had vexed settled Europe, such as the Vikings and Normans, and the marchlands of Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland were tamed and converted around 1000 A.D. In the core regions of France and the Rhineland, and in England after 1066, the Frankish feudal system had taken root. Agriculture was booming thanks to the invention of the mouldboard plough, the three-field system, and the clearing of forests, which meant both a growing population and the surplus food necessary to support towns and tradesmen. Europe was gaining a self-confidence it had never known, and was primed for the explosion of cultural creativity that would characterize the High Middle Ages. On the other hand, Latin Christendom was rent internally by religious dissent and new heresies in the Church, worldly corruption among clergy and within wealthy monasteries, and the incessant fighting of lords and knights who, having vanquished all foreign foes, turned on each other. The kings of France were helpless to enforce their authority over feuding vassals, while in Germany and Italy the Holy Roman Emperors not only battled local lords, but challenged papal authority by attempting to tax the church and appoint bishops. The popes had fought back by flinging excommunications in all directions, decreeing celibacy for priests, and insisting on their primacy to the point of schism with the Eastern Orthodox Church. But nothing worked-until Urban hit on the idea of a crusade.

 Mind you, the Arabs who had swept over half the Christian world in the eighth century were no longer a threat, and were being slowly pushed back in Spain, while the new invaders, the Seljuk Turks, threatened only the Byzantine Empire. So no immediate security imperative justified an expedition to the Holy Land, and while it was a scandal for Christianity's holiest places to be ruled by Muslims, Europeans had resigned themselves to that for three hundred years.

 What prompted Urban II to preach a crusade was the excellent, perhaps divinely inspired notion that a holy war far away might ameliorate all four of Europe's internal problems at once. Through a crusade he could reassert papal prestige and authority over the secular rulers, reimpose orthodoxy at a time of wayward opinions, restore law and order by diverting the restless warrior class abroad, and forge in Europe an internal unity it had not enjoyed since the breakup of Charlemagne's empire. "Christendom possessed in the Crusade Idea an instrument uniquely suited to express its sense of oneness," while Pope Innocent III confessed (in 1213), "that of all the desires of our heart we long chiefly for two in this life, namely . . . to recover the Holy Land and to reform the Universal Church."[1]

 The capture of Jerusalem and establishment of a Crusader State there was taken by contemporaries to be providential, but more to the point the pope appeared to achieve his domestic agenda. The monks who chronicled the Crusaders' fight for the Holy Land marveled at their penitent demeanor, as if they comprised "a military monastery on the move," and testified to their virtue as much as their valor. Back in Europe, the knights so recently condemned by the Church as violent and lustful brutes were transformed, in sermons and troubador songs, into heroes of faith and sacrifice which the home front would do well to emulate. And indeed clergy and laity rallied behind the Crusade with such enthusiasm that Urban had to prohibit many clergy and women from taking up arms themselves. Meanwhile, the Cluniac reform movement flourished as new orders of monks founded model monasteries rededicated to orthodoxy, work, prayer, and abstinence, then fanned out to the people "to infuse secular life with monastic values."[2]

 Similarly, the Church's pacifist movement, which had long condemned war among Christians, rushed to endorse what the pope now called milites Christi-soldiers of Christ-and their wars "in defense of righteousness." In short, the pope hated armies until he found uses for them, after which he became the most eager interventionist of all. And that, in turn, required a certain tweaking of inherited doctrine, for ever since Augustine of Hippo the Church had justified violence only in self-defense or response to injury. But Urban justified the crusade as a literal "war of liberation"-bellum libertatis-not only for Christians under the Muslim Crescent, but "for the liberation of the whole church."[3] This was a war for the spiritual freedom of all Christians, not only the physical freedom of some.

 Likewise, since Augustine war had been considered just only if it were motivated by love of one's enemies, as when loving parents administer punishment to children for their own good. Violence could never be just if done in a spirit of hatred or vengeance. But Urban did not try to pretend that Crusaders ought to love the Saracens; he said only that they ought to be moved by love of the cross rather than by dreams of glory or gain. In other words, the deployment of Christian force was now permitted, even in a spirit of vengeance-so long as self-interest was not involved!

 And that is why the pope's absolution of sins for Crusaders and those who supported them was not just a cynical tool of recruitment, but an expression of the very nature of the enterprise. To go to Jerusalem was a pilgrimage as well as crusade, and there is abundant evidence that many knights, who had no scruples about bashing skulls for a province or plunder or just for the fun of it, now felt serious guilt about taking up arms in the name of the Lord. "Frequently he burned with anxiety," says the biographer of one Norman knight, "because the warfare engaged in as a knight [of the cross] seemed to be contrary to the Lord's command to turn the other cheek . . . and these contradictions deprived him of courage. But after Pope Urban granted remission of sins to all Christians fighting the gentiles, then at last, as if previously asleep, his vigor was aroused."[4]

 Think now what we have heard so far. First, this Crusade was deemed just precisely because it employed armed force in the absence of any participant's political or material interests. Secondly, the Crusade was needed to reforge an alliance within the West that was falling apart in the absence of threats: it must go "out of area or out of business." Thirdly, the Crusade was sold as a moral cause in the interest of "enlargement" of the realm of peace and virtue. Fourthly, an ulterior motive of the Crusade was to "remoralize" the home front and restore its "national greatness," if you will. Fifthly, this was a Crusade meant to elevate the leader of the alliance, the Church itself, above all particularist interests so that it might exercise, as it were, a benevolent hegemony.

 We know the results of the Crusades: huge expenditures of wealth; immense loss of life among Christians, Muslims, pagans, and heretics; gratuitous, spasmodic slaughter of Jewish communities in Europe and Asia; the suicidal Children's Crusade and other "lambs to the slaughter" pilgrimages; attempts at forcible conversion of Muslims and Jews in strict violation of canon law; and all manner of impure motives on the part of knights who had often mortgaged or sold all they owned to finance their quest. Plunder became the primary goal of several crusades, climaxing in the notorious sack of Constantinople in 1204, and imperialism of others, as when Crusaders dreamed of conquering Egypt and Syria. As subsequent campaigns aborted, and appeals to virtue and sacrifice lost their power to motivate, preachers themselves appealed to kings and knights to avenge the deaths of their kinsmen or forbears. And rather than "enlarging" and purifying Christendom, the Crusades only served as a conduit for the importation to Europe of Islamic ideas and customs, secret abominations and gnostic cults, which survived for centuries. Many Crusaders went native, or took the occasion to indulge rather than purge their own vices. One knight from Aquitaine, the chronicles record, "went with many others to Jerusalem, but contributed nothing to the Christian cause. He was a fervent womanizer and for that reason showed himself to be inconstant in all that he did."[5] His name was William.

 And what did it all achieve? The Latin kingdom set up in the Holy Land, perhaps the most outlandish pre-modern example of state-building, lasted a mere eighty-eight years until reconquered by Saladin. The strangest of all episodes followed in 1229 when the Emperor Frederick II, himself under a papal ban, negotiated a treaty that peacefully restored Jerusalem to Christian rule, thereby making a mockery of all the papal dispensations and military campaigns that preceded and followed. Frederick's Crusader State survived a mere fifteen years.

 But success no longer mattered, if it ever really had. Crusading had become a system, an integral part of the domestic political, social, and religious structure of Europe, a mediator and safety-valve and blanket justification to mobilize force for all sorts of institutional purposes. Crusades were launched against the Moors of Spain, Saracens in the Mediterranean, the Mongol horde, and Albigensian heretics in France, while along the Baltic coast "the Teutonic Knights developed the 'perpetual crusade,' without the need for repeated and specific papal proclamations."[6] The thirteenth-century scholar Hostiensis "defended the use of crusades against all heretics and political enemies of the papacy" and advanced "the revolutionary idea that Christendom had an intrinsic right to extend its sovereignty over all who did not recognize the rule of the Roman Church."[7]

 In sum, once crusading is institutionalized, it ceases by definition (and certainly by dint of human frailty) to be crusading at all. And the Crusades did not lack for insightful critics inside and outside the Church, which is why perhaps the most interesting document of the whole period is the systematic apologia on behalf of the Crusades composed by Humbert of Romans, a former master general of the Dominican Order. He adumbrated the seven most salient objections to the Crusades, and rebutted them. I ask you to substitute in your mind the words "democracy" or "human rights" or "the United States" each time you hear "Christendom" or "the Church," and judge how contemporary old Humbert sounds.[8]

 The first critique holds that to shed blood, even the blood of wicked infidels, is not in accord with the Christian religion. Humbert replies that Bible passages can be found to support both pacifism and militancy. The correct way to reason it out is to recall that when a man is young and weak he gets along by acting humbly, but when mature and strong he accords himself in manly fashion. So it is with the Church, which in its youth was suckled by miracles and the suffering of saints, but once grown large and strong, is rightly defended by swords. "For who is so stupid as to . . . say that, were infidels or evil men to desire to kill every Christian and to wipe out the worship of Christ from the world, one ought not to resist them?"

 The second critique holds that while it is permissible to spill Saracen blood, one must be sparing of Christian blood. This, replies Humbert, is spurious. Indeed, "the fact that Christians cross their borders and invade their lands, although at much risk to their own lives, means that Christian blood is spared, for the Saracens would spill blood much more abundantly if the Christians were not to do this."

 The third critique holds that Crusades are inviting heavy casualties and defeats because the conditions of war are much worse for Christians if they sail far away to fight on the enemy's ground, in short supply, and in a strange climate. To do thus is to tempt the Lord thy God. No, replies Humbert, such doubters forget that the Christians are fighting for justice, which makes them fight well, with God as their helper, whereas the Saracen cause is unjust. But even on human terms, our weapons and training are better, and our wise leaders would never give battle without good hope of victory.

 The fourth critique approves only of battle in self-defense, condemning invasion of an infidel's lands so long as he leaves us in peace. To which Humbert replies that the Saracens hate us so much that had we not attacked them on their own soil they would by now have overwhelmed Christendom. What is more, the sacred land they occupy was once in the hands of Christians, so the Crusaders do not invade, but seek only to take back their own.

 The fifth critique states that if we should fight to rid the world of Saracens, why do we not do the same to the Jews? Humbert retorts that a remnant of the Jews will be converted according to prophecy, and in any case the Jews are so abject that they cannot molest us as do the Saracens. The Jews even help us in temporal things, and pay tribute.

 The sixth critique questions the whole point of Crusades, since they will never convert the Saracens, but only stir them up all the more against Christianity. Hence, the Crusades yield neither spiritual nor temporal gain. That, answers Humbert, is precisely the point! The fight is for honor, not gain, and it does serve to build up the Church insofar as God is all the more worshiped and justice all the more served. Thus, even as a worthy knight will challenge a wicked lord on his own domain to prevent him from despoiling his yeomen, so does Christendom at large.

 The seventh critique asks whether the Crusades can possibly be God's will in light of the misfortunes the Christians have encountered. O, ye of little faith, replies Humbert, you do not know how God acts. In Scripture God often chastises those whom He loves, but who have strayed from the Law. If certain Crusaders suffer and fail it is because they fight unjustly, or turn aside into sin, and so even defeats serve to purge the impure and build up the Church. Win or lose, the Crusades are their own reward.

 Now, it is significant that almost no one today, especially the advocates of American global hegemony, uses the word "crusade." They are unabashed, even militant, in their insistence that U.S. foreign policy be both moral and forceful, yet they shy from the word "crusade." That is because crusading is associated with religion and cultural imperialism. It calls to mind politically incorrect vices such as intolerance, hypocrisy, violence, and greed, and politically incorrect virtues such as chivalry, gallantry, sacrifice, and faith. Just as it is not only acceptable, but lauded in our Hollywood culture to practice fasting and abstinence for any reason other than religious devotion, so it is acceptable to invade, bomb, or impose sanctions on other countries for any principle except a spiritual one.

 How do these echoes of the High Middle Ages resonate, if at all, today? First, I believe we have discovered what it means to be a Crusader State in pristine theory and practice. In theory, to crusade means to go far afield to fight for a cause in which you have no material stake. On that score America is assuredly a Crusader State. In practice, however, crusades are launched to shore up a leader's authority, reduce or distract from conflicts at home, forge an artificial unity among flagging allies, or just put a humanitarian gloss on a political act. On that score, too, America is a Crusader State. And the Crusades do have something to teach us today, because all those critiques cited by Humbert remain valid-unless, of course, we infuse America's civic religion with a teleological force equal to that of Medieval Catholicism.

 Why, then, should Americans enlist in the crusades preached by today's benevolent hegemonists? If you accept their logic, we should do so for the same reasons Urban II offered at the Council of Clermont: to cleanse the earth of the enemies of our orthodoxy, to enlarge our empire of freedom, to rekindle our idealism at home, to bolster the unity of the Western democracies and give NATO a mission beyond self- defense.

 But to preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one, in which case you may encourage fanaticism and black-or-white judgments, and so lose the ability to manage the violence toward realistic ends and according to the standard of proportionality. To preach a crusade also risks the opposite result. Like the boy who cried wolf, or the football coach whose pep talks wear thin, the pope or president who turns every cause into a holy one, every enemy into a Hitler, every conflict into a genocide, may soon find his audience rolling its eyes and sinking into the very cynicism he hopes to surmount.

 When must the U.S. act, when must it lead-and when not? There is no simple answer, especially when our strategic and moral calculus is complicated by a lack of trust in the president and his motives. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, wrote Samuel Johnson. To do the right thing for the wrong reasons is the greatest of treasons, said T. S. Eliot. "Lilies that fester smell far worse then weeds," recalled C. S. Lewis, because the "higher the pretensions of our rulers are, the more meddlesome and impertinent their rule is likely to be and the more the thing in whose name they rule will be defiled."[9]

 That is why, as America enters the twenty-first century, we would do well to reflect on the malignant effects as well as the impious motives that tarnished the Crusades of the last new millennium. To be sure, the Psalmist prophesies, "righteousness and peace will kiss each other"-but only when Messiah arrives. Until then, to be always righteous means to be never at peace, which is what caused the thirteenth- century poet, Rinaldo d'Aquino, to lament:

 The cross saves the people, but causes me to go mad
 The cross makes me sorrowful, and praying to God does not help
 Alas, pilgrim cross, why have you thus destroyed me?[10]


1 Edward Peters, ed., Christian Society and the Crusades 1198+1229 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), pp. xii, ix. 

2 Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (London: Athlone Press, 1986), p. 2. 

3 Riley-Smith, First Crusade and the Idea, pp. 17+18. 

4 Ibid., p. 36. 

5 Riley-Smith, First Crusade and the Idea, p. 134. 

6 Riley-Smith, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 10. 

7 Louise and Jonathon Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), p. 29 

8 Ibid., pp. 103+17. 

9 C. S. Lewis, "Lilies That Fester," The Twentieth Century, Apr. 1955.

 10 "La croce salva la giente," in Riley-Smith, Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, p. 105. ____________________

 Other Publications by Walter McDougall Available Upon Request

 "The Merits &; Perils of Teaching About Other Cultures," Footnotes, May 1999 "The Wisdom of Robert Strausz-Hup‚," FPRI Wire, March 1999 "The Place of Words in the Arena of Power," Night Thoughts, November 1998 "The Ideological Agenda of History," Academic Questions, Winter 1998-99 "Nixon, Clinton, and the Baby Boom Rising," Night Thoughts, August 1998 "The Three Reasons We Teach History," Footnotes, February 1998 "The Purposes of Teaching History," The American Scholar, Winter 1998 "Why Some Neo-Cons Are Wrong About U.S. Foreign Policy, Night Thoughts Dec 1997 "Religion in Diplomatic History," FPRI Wire, December 1997 "Sex, Lies, and Infantry," Commentary, September 1997 "Kennan's "X" Plus Fifty," FPRI Wire, September 1997 "First Fruits of Those History Standards: Textbook Review," Footnotes, 4/97 "Back to Bedrock: The Eight Traditions of American Statecraft," Foreign Affairs, March-April 1997 "Bury My Heart at PBS," Commentary, December 1996 "What Johnny Still Won't Know About History," Commentary, July 1996 "Whose History? Whose Standards?," Commentary, May 1995.



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