The Longest War

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The current struggle against ISIS and “radical Islamic terrorism” (I hope President Obama will forgive me for uttering that expression) is but the latest phase of a war that’s been going on more than 3,000 years now, a war that has been fought along the world’s greatest geopolitical fault line, the line between Western Asia and Europe. Let’s note some of the high points of this, the world’s longest war.

1. The first record of this conflict we find in Homer’s Iliad: the Trojan War. A coalition of Greeks attacked Troy, an important commercial city on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea.

2. In the early fifth century BC the Great King of Persia, Xerxes, invaded Greece with a tremendous army and a sizeable navy. Apart from Thermopylae (“Stranger, go tell the Spartans we lie here obedient to their orders”), Xerxes met little opposition as he rolled into Greece and occupied Athens. But then he was defeated at the naval battle of Salamis (480 BC), and a year later he lost on the ground, at Plataea.

3. In the 330s BC Alexander led an army of Greeks and Macedonians into Asia, and in a brilliant military campaign he conquered the vast Persian Empire. In revenge for the Persian burning of the Athenian acropolis in the 480, Alexander – while drunk – burned the Persian capital of Persepolis. (Alexander was famous for chastity, not sobriety.

4. Beginning in the mid-third century BC and ending in the middle of the second, Rome engaged in two great wars against Carthage, plus one smaller war. Following this third war, Carthage – which, despite its western location, was an Asian city, a colony of Tyre – was defeated and razed to the ground.

5. In the second century BC, the Jews (who in those days were Asians, not Europeans), under the leadership of the Maccabeus family, threw off the yoke of the Hellenized king of Syria. But by the middle of the first century BC Rome had re-established Western dominion in Palestine. About the year AD 70 the Jews rose against the Romans, but they were crushed utterly. In the second century, another rising produced no different result.

6. For centuries, there was intermittent warfare between Rome and the successive Asian empires of Parthia and Persia. In one of these battles (first century BC), Marcus Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate, was killed; and in another (fourth century AD) the Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) was killed.

7. Beginning in the 630s the warriors of a new religion, Islam, emerged from the deserts of Arabia and conquered much of the Asian and all the African portions of the Roman Empire. The Arabs almost conquered all of Spain; their western advance was not stopped until 732, when Charles Martel (grandfather of Charlemagne) defeated them near the French city of Tours.

8. In Spain, where a few Christian enclaves survived the Arab conquest, the Reconquista soon began, but it wasn’t until 1492 that it was completed, when Ferdinand and Isabella took the last of the Muslim kingdoms in Spain – Granada – and expelled all Muslims (and Jews).

Martyrdom of the Maccabeus by Attavante degli Attavanti, c. 1450 [Vatican Library]
Martyrdom of the Maccabeus by Attavante degli Attavanti, c. 1450 [Vatican Library]
9. While Christians in Spain were recovering that peninsula, Christians elsewhere in Western Europe were marching and sailing to Palestine. The Crusades began at the end of the eleventh century and continued of and on for the better part of the next 200 years. After initial successes, the West failed to re-establish the control of Western Asia it had lost with the coming of the Arabs in the seventh century.

10. Meanwhile the Roman (or Byzantine) Empire fell in 1453 when the Muslim Ottoman Turks, after nibbling away for more than a century at the remnants of the once-vast empire, captured its final stronghold, Constantinople.

11. Not content with this, the Turks invaded the heart of Europe, moving up the Danube valley, winning the Battle of Mohacs (1526). This gave them control of much of Hungary, a launching pad for a series of unsuccessful assaults on Vienna, the last of which took place in 1683. In between these two dates, the Christian West won a great naval battle at Lepanto (1571).

12. The tide turned as the West modernized while the Ottoman Empire increasingly became “the sick man of Europe.” Beginning with Greece in the early 19th century, the European provinces of the Turkish Empire, one after another, won their independence. By the end of World War I, the Muslim-Asian beachhead in Europe had been reduced to Istanbul and its suburbs plus Albania.

13. As the Ottoman Empire declined and finally collapsed, European nations, especially Britain and France, moved into the vacuum, controlling (either as colonies or under some other guise) the North African and Middle-Eastern countries that had formerly been part of the Turkish Empire.

14. At the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement began. Jews (who by now were Europeans) migrated to Palestine; their settlements were legitimized by the Balfour Declaration (1917). Eventually these settlements led to the creation of the state of Israel (1948) and to a series of wars with neighboring Arab states.

15. Following World War II Arab nationalism arose, the glue holding this loosely organized phenomenon together being a universal hatred for Israel. Arabs did not (and do not) look at Israel the way Jews look at it, as the re-establishment of an ancient homeland. They look at it as a Western invasion of their territory.

16. This brings us to more recent phases of this ancient conflict – the two Gulf Wars, the September 11 attacks, the bombings on the London underground and the Madrid train station, the rise of ISIS, plus Paris and San Bernardino, and many other acts of terror.

If we can believe Homer, this whole tragic series began when the beautiful wife of an important European ruler ran off with a handsome and charming young fellow from Asia – an illicit love affair that touched off centuries of even more illicit hatred.


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David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

  • Rick

    We are not at war. Our heads are still in the sand. Wake me up when we get serious. Bush43 was such a disappointment.

  • Steven Barrett

    Professor, has it dawned on you and your fellow like-minded ideologues when it comes to conflicts of east and west … that the President isn’t using the term “radical Islamic terrorists” because he doesn’t want to give them the credit they are seeking for their terror campaigns, thus he’s trying to ice them out of what they don’t deserve. ISIS doesn’t represent Islam any more than the IRA represents all Irish Catholics or Catholics in general. Nor do the crazies who shoot up Planned Parenthood centers represent all prolife Christians. By making these criminals out to be more than what they are, dangerous criminals hiding behind their fig leafs of ideology to “cover” their lies, the President is elevating them. We know, and the President knows we know there are people who’ll use Islam or Catholicism, Protestantism, “pro-life activism” to kill names in the name of Jesus and saving lives, but we also know they’re liars.
    Why, for all your efforts to go way back to Homer’s Illiad, didn’t you finish your column by pointing to the very spark of today’s worst expresions of Islam: Wahabism, the most extreme variant of Islam, invented by a wandering cleric al Wahabhi, back during the late 18th century. There’s your real villain. Not President Obama.

    • ISIS may not “represent” Islam in the sense that the pope “represents” Catholicism, but they are adhering to a strain of Islam that has abundant theological and Koranic justification, and which has been a motivating factor for violent invasion and subjugation since the 7th century, as Professor Carlin points out.

    • Diane

      He is not saying it because he is a Muslim. Wake-up everyone. Obama is protecting them. He wants the Muslims to rule the World, including the United States. The most pro-abortion president we ever had. He truly hates Catholicism.

    • RainingAgain

      Your president uses the term “violent extremism” in order to foster the pretense that all religions are as likely to be guilty of terrorism as is Islam. The truth is that a Christian is likely to be violent despite his religion, while a Muslim is so because of it. Obama and his fellow multiculturalists wish to conceal this truth in order to facilitate the movement of increasing numbers of Muslims into the US and Europe, while simultaneously placing barriers in the way of Middle Eastern Christians seeking genuine refuge. Wahabhis are just one of many extremists in the history of Islam. Their history has been one of forced conversion by the sword since the beginning.

    • Michael DeLorme

      he doesn’t want to give them the credit they are seeking”? Isis doesn’t need credit from this president. He gives them aid and comfort.

      Barack Obama is every bit as anti-Semitic as any wandering 18th century cleric. Name one front on which he is not fostering the advance of Islam, militant or otherwise, as against the interests of Jews and Christians.

      He has ensured that Iran—a country that has vowed to annihilate Israel—will be a nuclear power in an all too near future; he has repeatedly treated Benjamin Netanyahu shabbily; screamed at him—in a phone conversation in July of last year while Israel was being bombarded from Gaza by Hamas—demanding an unconditional ceasefire on Israel’s part. In other word’s stop defending yourselves.

      The middle east is on fire, largely thanks to this administration. You can call some long dead cleric the villain if you like; I blame the villain in the White House and his former Secretary of State.

    • RufusChoate

      The problem for your construct is Islamic history denies every point of contention. Carlin’s view is fanciful nonsense stringing tangential movements to give the appearance of historical coherences where there is none but your point is simpleminded leftist sophistry that has been deployed by the Left since 1918 when they don’t wish to conform anti-western evil.

  • Matthew Karl

    Mr Carlin, Why do you hope Mr Obama will not mind your use of ISIS or radical Islamic terrorism? The President always uses the phrase “ISIL,” which If my thought is correct is his way of including Israel in Islamic lands. Also, rIt, is another phrase I don’t think he’s uttered unless in a denial of it.
    However, your more learned approach to what ISIL might mean would be appreciated.

  • JGradGus

    Or we could believe the author of Genesis — it all began when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, which was supposedly located in modern day Iraq. They procreated, Cain killed Abel, and so it began.

    • RosaryVictory

      Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, the serpent ought to have blamed Satan.

  • Craig Payne

    I would go back even a bit further. Isaac and Ishmael, perhaps?

  • Mel Collie

    The thing about “The Catholic Thing” is that right now there is Cardinal Dolan of New York deeply
    involved in Scandals of Homosexual Priests stealing thousands from parishes to support all
    kinds of unimaginable activities…..and no mention of this in the Catholic media!! Why? Its widely reported in the Public media? Is it because God is allowing the latter to clean up His messed up
    church which top ranking members of Catholic media are looking the other way?

    • Diane

      There is not a word in all of Catholic Media, except Church Militant (Michael Voris). Not the Catholic League, Catholic Vote, EWTN, the Catholic Thing or the Observer Catholic News Paper. They have the pulpit and they need to help fight against the evil that has come into our Church with all of the homosexual clergy, including the Cardinals and Bishops. It is time to call all of them out and get rid of them!

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    David you left out man’s most significant war, markedly described in Strindberg’s The Battle of the Sexes. Think how that has affected the slow dismantling of manhood.

    • Michael DeLorme

      The mantle has apparently passed, aslant, from Strindberg to Leonard Cohen. I love him, but “There Is A War” is a pretty bleak statement on the relations between the sexes.

      Mr. Carlin seems to be suggesting, though, that there is something paradigmatic about East-West conflicts; which may be the case but I’m not sure I follow the threads entirely.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Insofar as paradigm the same might be said of North-South. It is a detailed historical account the point of which may be interest. Dr. Carlin has cunningly succeeded in baffling us.

      • samton909

        Jesus was a sailor

        • Michael DeLorme

          A one man Seal team.

    • RosaryVictory

      Man and woman were created to be complementary. If it is from the evil one, it will bring nothing good.

  • Bro_Ed

    Wow. What an excellent 16 point trot through history. Well done.
    So it all started with Helen of Troy, eh? Glad to know we men had so little to do with causing the problem.

  • Diane

    Don’t apologize to Obama! He is the one that is wrong!

    • RosaryVictory

      Obama wields human power, Obama’s power that will end when Obama ends. Then, Obama will have 72 virgins in heaven. Good luck with that.

  • Isabel

    Interesting. There probably is a bit of the Ishmael and Isaac thing in the current conflict and in fact in the history that the author summarizes. This, of course, would make the Jews, even though they are from the region, the precursors or founders of the modern West, which really”happened” only as Europe was christianized.

    Incidentally, there were Jewish communities throughout both the BC Greek world and the Roman Empire. One of the things that makes Santiago’s trip to Spain probably true is that he went to evangelize the Jewish communities there, including an ancient Greek-era community near Barcelona, a Roman-era community near Zaragoza, and a Jewish community in Vigo, near Santiago de Compostela, to which his remains were returned after his martyrdom in Jerusalem. And don’t forget that St Paul was on his way to Spain at the time of his shipwreck on Malta.

    However, it is really Islam that has taken it over the top, because Islam is essentially an Arab superiority cult. People don’t look into that aspect of it, but the true supreme leadership is reserved to descendants of Mohammed (in one way or another, since he had no sons) and does focus on what was essentially his focus, the superiority of his Arab tribe of caravan-raiders. And they were Arabs – other In the area such as the Persians, for example, are not Arabs.

    Also, Islam is almost a parody of Judaism, taking the same law and making it more extreme and at the same time bizarre, and rejecting the Jewish covenant with God (which Christianity never rejected). So I’d say we’re back to Isaac and Ishmael – who, after all, the Muslims do regard as their founder and the founder of the Arab peoples,

    • Rick

      One of my life’s goal is to visit the Marian shrine in Zaragoza and to visit the city of Saint James (Matamoros – Moor slayer).

      Islam was the perfect religion for the Turkish hoards invading from the Steppes. A religion that says you can mutilate, torture, pillage, enslave, and rape your neighbors…and…here’s the kicker…wait for it…go to heaven for it. It is no wonder it spread so fast.

      Fortunately, all the science and technology that they stole from the Eastern Roman empire became obsolete before they were able to take over the world.

      • RosaryVictory

        What, may I ask, are the 72 virgins in heaven for if they have God?

    • RosaryVictory

      I agree with your comment. It is Isaac and Ishmael all over again. It too, must be pointed out that the church and the state are not separate in both Israel and Islam. Both are theocracies. Islam beheads persons for blasphemy. Israel, the Chosen People, keeps a closed covenant with God and acknowledges the sovereign person as an adopted child of God. Jewishness proceeds through the mother and their flag is blue and white.

  • James S.

    Re: your number 11, I think it was in Hillaire Belloc that I read that the Pope pleaded with France to follow up the battle of Lepanto, to deliver the Turks a decisive defeat. The French hesitated, for to do so would have been tantamount to turning the Mediterranean into a Spanish lake. England was not a naval power in 1571. French dalliance with the Ottomans was also a theme in the 1600s. France’s main threat was on the Rhine: keep the Germanic peoples divided. Hence, French diplomacy sought to outflank the German princes by staying relatively friendly with the Sultan.

  • Debbie Olson

    A nice addition to this article would be explaining how praying the rosary defeats the Muslims. Check out the battle of Lapanto in the 1500’s and there are other total rosary campaigns that have been very successful ??

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Even though the Battle of the Sexes is infinitely more ancient stemming back to Adam and Eve and the controversy over whose fault the Fall was reading it over my initial impression was dismissive of the only other constant which is the more recent conflict beginning 630 between Islam and Christianity which is religious and not geographical. But that is common knowledge. Perhaps the question of why could have been addressed.