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.