Here is part 2 of my eagerly unawated series on the parallels between the Crusader states of the Near East and Israel.
While they were technically up against numerically and logistically stronger foes who were fighting on their home turf, both Israel and Outremer had initial advantages that led to quick early victories. However, as the Muslim opponents grew accustomed to these tactics, they were able to adjust, negate, and in time, begin to overcome the initially stronger invaders. In less than a century, the military advantage that the knights had enjoyed during the First Crusader was completely gone as a result of the evolution of enemy tactics and power structure. The failure of the Crusader state to adapt in turn was rooted in its chaotic political system and in demographics.
How these same factors will play out for Israel remains to be seen, but I’ll try to figure out on the other side.
My apologies for this long diary, I tried to scale it down as much as I could, it’s already painfully abbreviated. If you get tired and just want to find some interesting and controversial statements about modern Israel, scroll to the bottom.
Warfare between Frankish (a catchall term referring to Catholics from Western Europe, also often referred to by their enemies as Latins) and Saracen forces (a catchall term used by the Franks and which I will be using for predominantly Muslim forces from the Middle East and Northern Africa who were the primary opponents to the Crusades before the Mongol invasion) was typically characterized by one main dynamic: the Europeans relied on heavy armored cavalry backed by archers or crossbowmen and pikemen to decide the battle in the first hour by reaching and breaking through the enemy lines through the sheer shock of impact by the charging knights. If the charge of the knights succeeded in impacting a stationary line of the opponent, it was virtually irresistible, regardless of the enemy’s numerical superiority. The enemy battle line would be cut in half by the original wedge of knights that would penetrate into the rear, with successive lines of knights now slamming into the already disordered mass of the enemy trying to reestablish its lines, inflicting mounting casualties and physically pushing people out of place and trampling them. Under this onslaught enemy formations regardless of size would quickly lose cohesion and turn into a panicked crowd fleeing the field. For the Saracens, their advantage lay in their greater speed due to their lighter armor, and their advantage at distance fighting conveyed by the bows carried by their horsemen.
Therefore, most battles between Crusaders and Saracens followed a similar pattern: the Saracens would open the battle by riding into bow range to shower the Frankish line. The Crusaders would then charge their opponents, either piecemeal or in a coordinate fashion depending on the quality of the commanders. If the topography of the battlefield or the formation of the enemy was such as to prevent the Saracen horse archers from scattering before the knights could reach them, the impact of the knights’ charge was devastating. If, however, the Saracen mounted archers and light cavalry could use their advantage in being lighter and faster to prevent the knights from closing, and reel around to shower them with arrows, taking down their horses, then the knights would quickly find themselves besieged and surrounded. Infantry support would then be required to extricate the knights. To prevent this, disciplined Frankish knights would not charge too far so as to outrun their infantry protection, but discipline among the hot headed knights was a perpetual bane of Crusader armies. As the enemies became familiar with each other, it became increasingly difficult for the Franks to close with their enemies as they desired. Tactics continued to evolve until the advantage in the field swung in the Saracens’ favor, as the Saracens became expert in refusing a shock engagement and in surrounding the Franks knights, while simultaneously evolving heavy infantry and a knightly class that could fight hand to hand with the Franks when it became necessary. By the time of Saladin, three generations after the First Crusade, the military advantage was nearly gone.
In addition to the decreasing utility of the preferred Frankish tactics, the Crusaders were also weakening because of other causes. Psychologically, the mystique of invincibility built up after the First Crusade was already gone, having been wasted by the dismal failure of the Second Crusade which had accomplished nothing except alienating some allies of the Crusader state. Even more debilitating was the fact that Outremer, despite its prosperity and the promised heavenly rewards for all who chose to devote their lives to the Crusade, failed to attract enough immigrants from Europe to create a sufficient pool of manpower for its defense. The bulk of the armed forces were provided by the personal retainers of the limited number of Frankish lords holding estates in Outremer, and by the soldiers of the Military Orders, in the Holy Land primarily the Templars and the Hospitallers, who, though being professional and veteran soldiers, were bitter rivals, which led to constant fighting over strategy in the field, insubordination, and reckless charges to show up their counterparts, of the kind that doomed the very promising Fifth Crusade in Egypt. However, the vast majority of these permanent troops were needed to garrison the vital defensive fortress network.
Therefore, unless a major Crusader army arrived from Europe, in order to mount any meaningful campaign, garrisons had to be reduced and the loss of one major battle by the royal army in the field therefore had the potential to lead immediately to the collapse of the carefully created defensive network of castles and cities that underpinned Frankish control. As a result, armies on offensive campaign were staffed largely by knights on temporary visit and mercenaries, and were not able to achieve anything significant, while defensive campaigns exposed the kingdom to a catastrophic collapse, of the exact kind that followed the Battle of Hattin. Ultimately it was this loss in the demographic struggle, plus the inability to evolve due to its chaotic political structure as discussed below, that doomed the state of Outremer, while a constant infusion of settlers allowed its sister Crusades in Spain and in the Baltic to achieve great success.
In 1180s, the Crusader kingdoms and Saladin’s personal state, extending from Egypt to Syria and Iraq had a peace treaty in place. This peace treaty was viewed as essential by the peace party, because of the obvious disparity in power between the waning Kingdom of Jerusalem, led by a leprous king and torn by bitter rivalries between the barons and the Military Orders, and Saladin's warmachine streching from Egypt to Turkey. However, the war party, led by Reynald of Chatillon, whose possessions deep in Transjordan thrust out like a thorn into the routes linking Egypt, Arabia, and Syria together, felt that to allow Saladin to begin the inevitable war on his schedule would be suicidal, and that the only chance for the Crusaders was to goad Saladin into a precipitous assault, the defeat of which would destroy his standing as the self declared protector of the Muslim world from the Crusader danger. The unfortunate power vacuum in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which is discussed at length below, allowed a lot of leeway for individual lords to act in accordance with their principles without being bound by the views of others or even of their king. Reynald therefore threw down the gauntlet on behalf of all Franks in Outremer by first attacking and capturing a large caravan proceeding in reliance on the peace treaty, and then by trying to capture the Qaba stone holy to the Muslims and to disrupt the Red Sea trade routes by launching ships raid into the Red Sea and landing raiders on the holy coast of Arabia. Saladin could not let this pass.
Saladin’s grand army invaded Outremer from Syria late in the season, penetrating to the Sea of Galilee and besieging the major fortress city, Tiberias, which belonged to Raymond of Tripoli. Count Raymond advised that the Franks not take the field against the Saracens, but allow the brutal summer heat to wear down the offensive, even if this meant allowing Tiberias, where Raymond’s own wife was trapped, to fall. This dishonorable option was rejected by the war party, and the entire force of the Kingdom of Jerusalem army set out in the burning heat from Jerusalem across the dry hills, taking with it the garrison troops from fortresses all through the kingdom, including the force required to defend Jerusalem, almost the entire strength of the Military Orders (also drawn by stripping garrisons from vital fortresses), and sizeable contingents from the Count of Tripoli and the Prince of Antioch.
Inexplicably, as the army approached to a day’s march from Lake Kineret, the King instructed water carts to be left behind and for each man to carry only enough water for one day. Perhaps the King hoped to make a lighting descent upon Saladin’s besieging army around Tiberias, and did not want the baggage train to slow down the advance. But Saladin was not sitting idly waiting to be attacked. The Saracen force, which significantly outnumbered the Franks, was spread out all across the Frankish line of advance, denying the knights any compact stationary formation to charge at, but instead showering the marching Franks with arrows as they moved. This greatly slowed down the march, as infantry had to walk in tight formation with shields raised to protect the precious horses who were most vulnerable to the arrow fire, and crossbowmen deployed to the edges and returned fire. The entire formation inched along, with more and more men falling wounded. By nightfall, the army was still far from the lake, its water supplies were gone, there were hundreds of wounded, and the camp, which was hastily set up on the adjacent rocky hills known as the Horns of Hattin was immediately besieged by a huge Saracen force, which taunted the thirsty Crusaders through the night by pouring water on the ground. The lack of water and wounds took the Frankish horses out of the equation, meaning that the knights would have to fight on foot, destroying the possibility of charging to break the enemy line that was the only real hope of victory against the much more numerous foe.
On the next day, the Battle of Hattin commenced in full, with waves of Saracen soldiers assaulting the Frankish camp through the day, with the battle line pushing ever upward, toward the King’s tent. Although the Franks still enjoyed the advantage in close fighting, the heavily armored knights were passing out from thirst and heat, as fresh Saracen reinforcements continued to renew the assault. The slaughter among the Christians was incredible, and afterwards, Saladin ordered the execution of all Military Order prisoners, setting off a chain of prisoner executions that would persist through the Third Crusade. Following this rout, the defenseless fortresses of inland Outremer surrendered in droves, and the city of Jerusalem itself had to capitulate. Only at the coast were the remaining Frankish forces able to mount some resistance, enough to enable the reinforcements arriving from Europe with the Third Crusade to reverse the tide sufficiently to establish a weakened but still viable Kingdom of Acre.
The agony of Outremer lasted another century. By the time it was over, entirely new forces and tactics were characterizing warfare in the region. The arrival of the Mongols, who took the mounted horseman tactics to the next level and were able to easily decimate both the Saracen and the Frankish armies trying to stand against them, redrew the map of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, but the Mongols were too far away to dominate Palestine itself. After the Crusader states missed the opportunity to ally with the Ilhanid Mongol khanate centered in Persia, because of the almost superstitious fear the Europeans had for the Mongols, they were snuffed out by a resurgent Egypt using Mameluke slaves trained in the Mongol style of warfare to resist the Mongols and rout the Franks. By that time, the Crusading movement in the Middle East was essentially dead, and energies had turned to the less heavily defended targets of Spain, the Baltics, Greece, and North Africa.
The reasons for this decline and extinction are not just military, demographic, or economic in nature. In my view, Outremer was both blessed and saddled by a system of governance unlike any at the time in Europe, or the world for that matter. Unlike the Baltic crusade, which was run dictatorially by the Teutonic Order, or the Spanish crusade, which was run by the royal families and the traditional noble assemblies of the northern Spanish Christian states, Outremer was a hodgepodge of every medieval governing tradition imaginable. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was of course ruled by the King, but the King was often weak, absent, a minor, resulting in effective rule devolving to regents, baronial councils, and various ambitious favorites. The Count of Tripoli and the Prince of Antioch, the other Christian princes in the region whose support was vital for common defense, were not bound by any feudal loyalty to the King of Jerusalem, and were therefore often pursuing their own strategy and diplomacy in contradiction to the King. Further adding to the complexity was the presence of other groups within the Kingdom which also were not obligated to obey the King. The Italian cities had created de facto independent quarters for themselves, immune from local taxation and regulation, in return for the valuable naval support and commerce they provided. The inhabitants of these quarters did not render military service, and often fought each other in the streets if their mother cities went to war. The Military Orders technically owed loyalty only to the Pope, and practically speaking, did not obey anybody and functioned as states within the state, and at war with each other.
This created a very pluralistic system which relied on consensus or common danger to propel the various factions into action, but which the rest of the time was little more than a free for all, with the barons, knights of the orders, Italians and others each pulling in their own direction. This anarchic situation could have been overcome by a powerful personality, but throughout the twelfth century, fate conspired to prevent the emergence of a strong monarch in Jerusalem. Promising candidates either died too quickly, or were assassinated by rival factions. The high mortality rate also plagued the baronial families, as malaria and constant warfare removed the best and the brightest, who were too often replaced by opportunists from Europe who, having failed to make it at home, grasped at the chance to marry a wealthy widow in Outremer and loot her estates and who were thus little inclined or qualified to participate in the government and defense of the Kingdom. As a result, there was no effective government in Jerusalem and the state drifted, unable to change course or to reform itself in the face of changing conditions and emerging threats.
The Israeli story has many parallels to the above. When European Jews arrived in Palestine, they had an immediate and overwhelming advantage over the local population in their understanding of modern military tactics and their level of education which allowed a competent officer corps to quickly emerge. After the Holocaust, this advantage increased further through the influx of many people with experience in World War II, and also of thousands of people who no longer feared death, and felt that death on the battlefield was a good outcome compared to what they had endured. So even though the Jews were outnumbered and outgunned by the Arab armies, they were better commanded and much better motivated, and made tenacious and smart fighters. The Arab armies on the other hand were mostly made up of peasant conscripts led by British trained but generally high handed and incompetent officers, and entirely unsupported by anything like a General Staff, which was essential when fighting uncoordinated campaigns on many fronts against an enemy enjoying the advantage of interior lines. The only Arab formation which fought effectively during the 1948 War of Independence was the Arab Legion, which was actually commanded by British officers.
The Israeli advantage only increased following the foundation of the state. Quick industrialization allowed Israel to create a Navy and to supply their soldiers. Purchases on the European war surplus market, as well as some sales by the French allowed Israel to acquire armor and air power which it did not have in 1948. The constant state of low grade war that existed post 1948 also led to the rise of a professional officer corps and of veteran elite units skilled at small unit commando operations. The Arabs, while still enjoying an advantage in manpower and materiel, were still handicapped by the same problems of discipline, training, command and control of their armies, and their lack of coordination with each other. Thus, in 1967, the Arab rout was even more complete.
However, the Arabs were not incapable of learning from their defeats. By 1973, some adjustments in tactics were made, the soldiers were given simpler tasks, the officer corps received more training from their Soviet advisers, and the Yom Kippur War was far from a one sided beating like 1967 was. The standout success for the Arab military effort was the high number of Israeli tanks destroyed by Egyptian small mobile teams armed with portable anti-tank missiles. These lessons were further driven home by the performance of the Syrian Army during the Lebanon War in the 1980s. Again, Syrian soldiers succeeded in destroying a large number of Israeli tanks operating in small mobile teams, but failed to hold ground against the Israeli assault. Based on this experience, the Hizbollah guerilla army arose, which became highly adept at ambushes and surprise attacks on Israeli units and positions, and did not give Israel the chance to bring its firepower to bear on any fixed position. Such fixed positions as Hizbollah did have were in populated areas, preventing Israel from being able to bring its entire artillery and air firepower advantage to bear and forcing Israel to send in foot soldiers who could be engaged on more or less equal terms.
The success of asymmetrical warfare against Israeli forces, which had grown too complacent fighting the inferior conventional forces of the Arab states, galvanized the Palestinians, who had to that point pinned their hopes on relief from the outside, to launch their own guerilla war, and thus the intifada period began. To a certain extent, Israel was able to counter the effectiveness of the guerilla war in Palestine by utilizing its excellent intelligence apparatus in the territories and using targeted strikes and assassinations to reduce the necessity for difficult and costly counterinsurgency operations by conventional army forces. Because the intifada until recently had so many aspects more akin to a terrorist campaign than a guerilla war, it was not viewed as dangerous to Israel’s existence. But the Second Lebanon War in 2006 really brought the point home. Israeli forces suffered a very high rate of casualties while being unable to stop Hizbollah rocket fire or take out its command networks or inflict meaningful casualties. This war was Israel’s first indisputable defeat since its founding. The second followed shortly in the Gaza invasion this winter, which also failed to stop rocket fire and failed to take out Hamas’ command networks, although Hamas’ relative weakness compared to Hizbollah and the lack of good defensive terrain in Gaza meant that the casualties suffered by Hamas were higher and the Israeli casualties were lower. However, even in this war in its own occupied zone against a foe that is mainly a terrorist organization rather than a guerilla army, Israel clearly failed to achieve victory.
It has now become clear that the Arabs had evolved new tactics and Israel has thus far failed to counter them. However, several of the other factors that doomed Outremer are not present. Israel has to a large extent succeeded in brining in enough settlers to make themselves a viable economy and create an adequate pool of military recruits. The Arab world has not been unified, and subsequent Western crusades, most notably the American invasion of Iraq have at least temporarily weakened or cowed powerful potential opponents to Israel. It remains to be seen whether Iran can actually follow though on its regional ambitions, its expansion drive is only in its earliest stages although some of the early signs are good, but it is sure to encounter growing opposition from other regional players and the global powers before it is allowed to attain any significant power.
The other open question is whether Israel’s unique governance structure will become a millstone around its neck, preventing innovation and bold action as in the case of Outremer. Israel’s parliamentary system produces a plethora of parties, each pulling in its own direction. The leaders of these parties are more interested in getting ministerial powers for themselves than in the programs of their own parties, let alone the welfare of the state as a whole. At the same time, the Jewish religious community exercise a power over the state far in excess of its numbers. Despite not having really participated in the foundational struggle, and not even recognizing the state of Israel or rendering military service, the religious right is viewed as a kind of mascot, or unifying glue, that is essential for Israel’s long term survival by maintaining a Jewish identity.
This misguided view that the identity and future of Israel is tied to the precepts of a millennia old religion the tenets of which are themselves disputed and have evolved over time, is reminiscent of the view of the Kingdom of Jerusalem is religious institution fist, state second. The priests and rabbis exercise inordinate power, and even highly rational secular leaders find themselves formulating policy based on the pronouncements of the religious orders regarding God’s will. This is a suicidal policy for any state to take, particularly a state besieged by enemies on all sides. Ultimately it was the Crusader’s faith that God would not abandon them in to the hands of the infidels that led them, without water, to the Horns of Hattin, with their hopes pinned to the True Cross and the Holy Lance relics which were carried by the priests at the head of the army. Surely God would not let such relics fall to the enemy, they reasoned as they continued to march farther and farther from the last source of water and into full encirclement by a vastly larger and better supplied army. Of course after the loss, nobody blamed God, but only the sinfulness of the Crusaders who caused the Divinity to turn his face from them.
Similarly, many even secular Israelis today, conditioned by an education system that systematically conflates biblical myth and ancient history together, rest their faith in the fact that God has brought the Jews to Israel, it is their Holy Land, and therefore He will see this experiment through and not allow a second Holocaust. But as the history of the Jews in Israel shows, God is quite willing to allow enormous calamities to befall his people, and to justify it through some half mad prophet as a punishment for their insufficient piety.
Meanwhile, the religious sects that have become the sacred cow of Israel do not by and large even serve in the Israeli Army, because they do not recognize the state, but feel no similar compunction about accepting state welfare funds to support their vast families while they spend their days studying the Talmud. Among the few heartening developments in Israel lately has been the push to get the Hasidim to serve in the armed forces, which has met with some limited success.
It is this irrational religious dominance over state policy and the political system that supports it while working against the emergence of any dynamic and innovative leadership that is the most worrying parallel between Outremer and Israel for me. Regardless of how visionary some emerging leader may be, if he ever rises to power in Israel, he will have to deal with his intransigent coalition partners, who are only out to benefit their pet causes and themselves. The settler movement, the religious parties, the Army, the unions, and so on and on, have to be represented in any viable government and will without fail derail any innovative policy that might threaten their particular fiefdoms. And then God help that leader if he suggests that perhaps some of the more absurd Talmudic prohibitions regarding forbidden behavior on the Sabbath, for example, might have to be reformed to allow the state to function effeciently. Saddled with such a system, it is no wonder that Israel is finding itself drifting more and more off course and failing to adapt to ominous developments all around it. I do not have a good feeling about how this one will end.