Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Unholy Crusades?

The Daily Mail is a newspaper held in contempt by metropolitan bien-pensants, often for good reason. But it carries as much serious history within its bizarre mixture of celeb-baiting, hypochondria and ‘proper’ news as any other British newspaper. Our own Juliet Gardiner’s excellent new book The Thirties (Harper Press) is currently being serialised in the Mail. Peter Oborne is one of the most historically-informed of political commentators. And historians of the calibre of Max Hastings and Michael Burleigh are regular contributors.

But today’s edition contains a piece of A-grade historical tosh: William Napier, author of the Attila novels, says that ‘traditionally the Crusades have been painted as a noble mission’. By who exactly? Since when? Edward Gibbon, writing as far back as the 18th century, judged them to have been born of a ‘savage fanaticism’ and that they had ‘checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’. Despite the efforts of Walter Scott and various 19th-century colonialists that’s pretty much the view today. For a serious consideration of the subject, may I point readers to Jonathan Phillips article Call of the Crusades published in our November 2009 issue. Bizarrely, Phillips is namechecked by Napier, though one wouldn’t think he had read his excellent book Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (Bodley Head) very carefully.

The Mail carries a more considered article by the historian of decline Correlli Barnett on the need to cut Britain’s military cloth, but the argument is put more forcefully and originally by the Times’ Sam Kiley whose latest, superb book Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade is one of the best books I have ever read on the subject of men and war. According to Kiley:

subtle, fast and highly trained small, integrated units are the only way to fight the new form of war that is already upon us. There is now a very good case for copying the US Marine Corps and integrating the Army, Navy and Air Force into one’. Britain’s armed forces should become the ‘fast, lean, and cheap attack dogs of Nato. If we get the Strategic Defence Review right, we would have a big voice in Nato because we could deliver a powerful and quick punch on its behalf — and because we can box with brains. We can leave the big expensive stuff to the Americans.

Jonathan Phillips traces the 800-year history of ‘Crusade’ and its power as a concept, in The Call of the Crusades

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