Still Trying to Hustle the East

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Now it is not good for the Christian’s health
to hustle the area in brown
for the Christian riles and the Aryan smiles
and it weareth the Christian down

And the end of the fight
is a tombstone white
with the name of the late deceased —
and the epitaph drear:
“A fool lies here
who tried to hustle the East!”

~ Rudyard Kipling

The foreign press seems to have taken to the U.S. grunt in Iraq as if he were John Wayne fighting the Apache. They seem almost to admire the way GIs spit and curse, and "kick butt." “Our job is to destroy things,” said one budding Sherman to an English reporter. The European can’t help but be impressed; he wishes he could destroy as much.

But the foreigners root for the Apache in films, and for the Iraqi in real life. Who can blame them? In a contest of David vs. Goliath, who takes Goliath’s side? That is one of the perverse curiosities of this world: You go to all the trouble to get on top of it, only to amuse your friends by falling off.

Iraqis are overwhelmingly outgunned. They are up against the world’s greatest military power. In comparison, they are practically unarmed. It is amazing they fight at all; for every one American they bring down, nearly 50 of their own men get stretched out. Newspaper photos typically show GIs in some compromising position. They are either torturing prisoners, kicking dead bodies, or shooting unarmed Arabs.

It was not the first time people tried to do good in the Near East.

At the end of the 11th century, Europeans decided to bring the blessings of Christian governance to the towel heads. Nine hundred years later, Democracy was the good that the do-gooders hoped to do.

The crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were doomed from the beginning. The crusaders had the will and the weapons to kick Arab butts; what they lacked was a reason for doing so. Christianity was already firmly rooted in the Holy Lands…as it had been for more than 1,000 years, even though Jerusalem had fallen to the caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab in February of 638. Amin Maalouf, in a delightful little book, The Crusades from the Arab Point of View, tells us how it happened, and shows us remarkable parallels between now and then.

Hassan as-Sabbah was born in 1048, not far from the present town of Teheran. Like Osama bin Laden many years later, Hassan had an axe to grind. And like Osama, he ground it on the wetstone provided by his Western allies.

What stuck in Hassan’s craw was the remarkable change that took place in the Arab world in the 11th century. Chiitism had dominated the region at the time of his birth. But the victory of the Seljuk Turks pushed the Chiites to the back of the bus. The Seljuks were Sunnites…and defenders of Sunni orthodoxy.

Hassan fell in with Muslim fundamentalists and was soon active in a resistance movement, centered in Cairo. In 1090, he made a sudden assault on the "eagles nest" fortress at Alamout, near the Caspian Sea, giving him a base of operations — like Osama’s mountain redoubts — that was inaccessible and impregnable. There, he recruited an army and trained them in terror.

The terrorists of the 11th century had no fertilizer bombs and no commercial airplanes. All they had was the equivalent of box cutters — knives. Their technique was to infiltrate an enemy’s city, pretending to be merchants or religious ascetics. Circulating around town, their aim was get to know their target’s movements, while making themselves unremarkable. Then, they would spring on him suddenly and stick a knife between his ribs.

So single-minded and unflappable were Hassan’s agents that witnesses thought they must be drugged. Thus, they came to be known as the “haschaschin,” which became the word we know as "assassin."

The crusaders saw the assassins not as a threat, but as an opportunity. Like the Reagan administration in the 20th century, the Franks of the 12th century decided to make common cause with the assassins against their common enemy — Seljuk Chiite Muslims.

Once a public spectacle gets underway, its initial intentions, premises and causes are soon lost. Events take on their own logic and run to the end. There is no stopping them, no arguing with them, no trying to make sense out of it, or trying to salvage a purpose to justify the expense. Quo fata ferunt. Public spectacles of the financial and political sort begin in comedy and end in farce. Those that involve armies and war typically begin as farce and end in tragedy. Nothing can be done to change the course of history; all the individual can do is to try to recognize when the spectacle nears its end…and slip out the exit while it is still open.

When the crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, they found a place of general religious tolerance — there were churches next to synagogues down the street from mosques. The also found a region that was divided into hundreds of political units where loyalties and alliances shifted as fast as the desert sands. The Muslim world posed no threat to the Christian West, it was too disorganized, unable to protect itself, and incapable of projecting much in the way of military power.

But the crusaders changed that. Gradually, under Noureddin and then Saladin, the Islamic world came together to drive out the Franks. At the decisive battle of Hittin, Saladin brought together troops from all over the near east and faced, none other than Renaud de Chatillon.

Al-Malik al-Afdal, Saladin’s son, then just 17 years old, described the battle:

“I was beside my father at the battle of Hittin, the first battle I had been in. When the king of the Franks found himself on the hill, he launched a ferocious attack that made our own troops drop back to where my father and his horse were standing. I looked at him. He was sad. Nervous. He pulled at his beard and stepped forward, yelling, u2018Satan must not win!’ The Muslims left once again to assault the hill. When I saw the Franks fall back under the pressure of our troops, I cried with joy, u2018We have beat them!’ But the Franks counter attacked even more strongly and our forces were once again near my father. He pushed them this time once again to the attack and he forced the enemy to retire towards the hill. I cried again, u2018We have them beat.’ But my father turned towards me and told me, u2018Be quiet. We won’t have beaten them until that tent up there falls down.’ Before he was able to finish his sentence, the tent collapsed. The sultan [Saladin] got down off his horse and kneeled and thanked God, crying for joy.”

Saladin had a reputation for mercy and even-handedness. But it was a rough place and a rough time. The Franks, especially, had a reputation for butchery. Later, when Richard the Lionheart took the city of Acre, for example, he massacred 2700 soldiers he had taken prisoner, plus an additional 300 women and children found in the city. Under similar conditions, Saladin typically let his captives go free. But so great was his disgust with Renaud that he had vowed to kill him with his own hands. When the prisoner was brought before him, he made good his promise.

Back in the Homeland, 2004, most Americans have persuaded themselves that their troops are doing God’s work in the land of the ancient Mesopotamians. God means for the Iraqis to be free and democratic, they believe.

Thus has the whole nation become a giant OJ Simpson jury…unable to imagine that their homeland boys could be doing anything but good. Pictures were exhibited on national television, clearly showing a U.S. marine gunning down a wounded prisoner. “This one’s faking he’s dead,” said the soldier. Then, after a clatter of gunfire, “He’s dead now,” says the marine.

A poll, that circulated on the Internet the next day, revealed that crowd back home was fully behind its troops — three out of four people thought the Iraqi had it coming.

But this is a Public Spectacle. There is no place for ambiguity, subtlety or irony. The mass of Americans has lined up in favor of the war against Iraq as if it were the Superbowl, and they were backing the home team; it asks no questions, and feels neither guilt nor shame. It sees no need to apologize and fears no danger of retribution, neither from man or God himself.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

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