Saturday, May 30, 2009

Warriors of God by James Reston, Jr.

No, this is not about modern politics, though perhaps it is, indirectly. This is a book about King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin and their role in the Third Crusade. I grabbed it on impulse at the library, and was pleasantly surprised by its quality.

The book starts off with the early, pre-crusade careers of both leaders, highlighting parts of their lives that shadow their later exploits. This is the only part of the book that drags a bit--it's hard to do the whole "Adam begat Abel, and Abel began Pepcid AC and Pepsid begat Relief" thing in a compelling manner.

Once we get get going, however, this is a very engaging read, as Reston describes the battles that destroyed the fragile Kingdom of Jerusalem. My prior knowledge of this part of wold history is frighteningly small, but I wasn't shocked to learn at all that petty bickering combined with inept leadership left the Christians ripe for the picking once the Muslims had a good leader, and Saladin was most definitely that man. While the Christians allowed political wrangling and appeals to pride to rule them, leading to the terrible King Guy and the pirate Reginald (apparently, "Though Shalt Not Steal" does not apply to unbelievers, though that seems to be missing from my copy of the text...) and some really stupid ideas (such as attacking a well-fortified area with no supply line and no water--guess how that ended up!), Saladin bided his time, let patience rule him as much as possible, and slowly but surely pushed the Christians out of the Holy Land.

But make no mistake, Saladin wasn't perfect. Throughout the text, he has many crises of faith--being the standard bearer for a whole religion is taxing, and on the Christian side, the lack of unity almost helped keep the pressure off Richard a bit. He also had a hard time keeping the unity he worked so hard to set up in the Muslim world. Still, he was an amazing General, as the text reveals, and his behaviour towards his enemies and the few Jews in the Holy Land make the Christians look like barbarians. (While Saladin invited the Jews back to Jerusalem, the Christians were having bonfires with their Jews, not to mention that during the first Crusade, Jews were the first to be slaughtered when they reached the walls. Frankly speaking, no pun intended, but the Christians come off rather badly in this whole affair.)

Once things are rolled up in the Holy Land, we turn back to Europe to see what Richard is up to. Seems he and his father didn't get along too well, and the legend of Richard as a strong fighter came mostly from fighting with his dad, and not just in terms of verbal banter, either, though apparently Richard was quite the wit, as Reston reveals in judiciously used quotes. He was also, which I appear to be the only person on earth who didn't know this, a homosexual until he had to get married for political reasons. Funny, that never comes up in Robin Hood, and I wonder if anyone told Sean Connery. He even had no women at his coronation session, and I hear it was a very gay affair. Ahem. Moving on. Richard's proclivities in his youth lead to trouble, however, because the other person headed off to Crusade with him is King Phillip of France, England's frequent rival and now a spurned lover.

I'm sure you're shocked, this doesn't go well, and Reston shows over and over again how Richard can't help but make himself look better than his old lover, building up a resentment that will lead to Richard being imprisoned after the Crusade is over. Apparently war and the French don't go together very well, because the French cut and run after a bit, leaving Richard, fresh off more conquests en route, to face Saladin alone.

This is the fun part of the book, from a military standpoint. Richard and Saladin were men ahead of their time, and, in the case of Richard, one of them may have been the best at personally leading his men of any General, ever. Reston includes many accounts of Richard single-handedly keeping the Crusaders in the fight when all seemed lost, most notably at the very end, where Richard needs to make landfall with a small army. (The way is blocked, until Richard himself leads the fight to clear up the beach. If I read that in a fiction book, I admit, I'd feel as though the author overreached, but apparently, it's true. Like I said, Richard was amazing.)

The Christians, badly outnumbered, far from home, and still squabbling all the way, manage to beat back Saladin to the point that he is ready to give up on Jerusalem and work to prevent Arthur from becoming another Ceasar. But maybe there's something to that divine intervention thing, because Richard gets cold feet just as he's about to win, pulling back at the right time for Saladin to be able to fight to a draw. This is just what he wants, because once Richard is gone, Saladin knows he can take out the Christians at a time and place of his choosing.

Like a paper cup that's been refilled one too many times, though, once the fight is over, neither party does very well. Saladin returns home, and, very ill, passes away soon after. Richard tries to flee back to England, and ends up captured by his foes and ransomed like a damsel in distress. He spends the rest of his life fighting with his ex-lover and settling disputes by fighting, the only thing he turns out to be good at. His end is far less glorious than anything he ever accomplished on foreign soil.

Reston's text, while long (it clocks in at just under 400 trade paperback pages), is fresh throughout, and his accounts of the battle are quite clear. At times, it's like reading a scrit for a History Channel documentary--he peppers discussion with sarcastic comments that also help keep the text moving. For example, when Richard (comically?) suggested a marriage between the two families, and Saldin's brother balks at being married to less than a Queen, Reston quips, "The players were being difficult." It's things like that which bring this up over the usual history book to something I'd recommend for people who aren't big fans of non-fiction.

This is not to say that the book isn't well-researched. Reston quotes where needed, and takes pains to point out the facts versus the legends, especially in the case of Richard. (I love how he handles Robin Hood, for instance.) He also does a great job of hopping across the world without spreading himself too thin. I was able to get the whole picture, and since this was a "world war" before they called them that, a sense of scope is highly important. All in all, though this is considered a "popular history" (translation--not dry enough!), I'd consider it a model of how to write an engaging and concise history of an event that more people should learn about.

If there's a lesson in this book, it's that every time Christians try to take over the lands that belong to the Muslims, it ends up badly for the Christians, and that Sunnis and Shiites never have gotten along very well. Deal with a moderate leader fairly, and we can all get along. But when you push people too far, they will fight. Apparently, this hasn't gotten through to modern times very well, and we're only going to learn that lesson to our peril. Since this book pre-dates all of today's problems, it would be asking too much of Reston to think he was trying to sound a warning to would-be Crusaders. But I can't help but think after reading this book that any attempt to take the Holy Land is going to end in disaster--even if our new goal isn't the True Cross, but Pure Crude.

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