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James Reston’s “Warriors of God”

August 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade.” The author James Reston, Jr. depicts the clash between the Christian Holy Wars and the Muslim Jihad at the end of the third century. Well, what compels a historian to get involved in an 800-year-old story?

JAMES RESTON, JR.: Well, there are a number of reasons. In the first place it is a wonderful story with two Olympic and Olympian figures who come in clashing, clash together in the Holy Land and in a story that really has, I think, a lot of resonance for today’s problems in the Middle East. This is a book that grew out of my last book that had to do with the millennium where I was writing about the world a thousand years ago. And I was looking for another story in medieval history. But this has the elements of great figures resonance for today. And a story that just, I think, is griping in all its elements.

RAY SUAREZ: Are we still finding out new things about this period? History or documents or other kinds of evidence coming to light that gives a historian something new to say about this era?

JAMES RESTON, JR.: Well, there are always new things that can get thrown in. The basic stories have been told but they’ve been told from two specific perspectives, I think. In the case of Saladin, who is really not as well known in the West generally as he ought to be he is really a demagogue to the Arab world and he has always be treated as a demagogue. That is a skewed perspective, almost as this inhuman superhuman character who stands with Allah and Mohammed and Saladin. So there was a lot of three dimensionalizing that could be done about Saladin. Similarly Richard the Lionheart is all caught up in the age of chivalry and bedtime stories for boys and girls years ago — and Robin Hood lore and all of that. And generally speaking, the history of the Crusades has almost been captured by the Cambridge historians in Cambridge, England. That in itself is limitation, I think. So what I’ve attempted to do here is to bring these two together in dual biography and in a way knock away the barnacles that have encrusted both of the characters from both of those specific perspectives.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the histories of the crusades pay a lot of attention to religion. But how much are these really religious wars and how much are they wars of dueling empires, wars for control of territory that then get cloaked in religion?

JAMES RESTON, JR.: Well, it is all of that really. I mean any time you mix religion and warfare together, we don’t have to go too deeply into that so far as the current situation in the Middle East is concerned — it is a very incendiary mix all together. But it’s always been of interest to me that the crusades starting with the first one was always an effort by the Vatican to mobilize and harness the energies of warring knights of Europe and put them to the task of recovering the Holy Land, which he thought, the pope thought, was a great noble goal rather than have these little wars across Europe.

RAY SUAREZ: So everybody stop fighting each other, go fight the other guys.

JAMES RESTON, JR.: That was the essential point of the Pope in the first crusade. And the third crusade which I argue is by far the most interesting one because of these magnificent characters who come into conflict with one another, well, there it begins by the capture of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher by the Muslim forces, Saladin in particular and this is of course a tremendous shock to all of Europe and the mobilization of another crusade is quite easy.

RAY SUAREZ: We think so much of the crusades in terms of the West heading East, but what heads West as a result of the crusades? Is Europe changed by this contact with the Arab world, with west Asia?

JAMES RESTON, JR.: Well, I think it is changed. The Middle East always in medieval history has been a great influence of Europe. The learning of Europe came from the middle east, the great areas of learning were Damascus and Cairo. That learning moved across North Africa into Spain and north into the barbaric center of Europe and in the Middle Ages, but the tremendous mobilization of manpower in the crusades absolutely devastated the manhood of Europe for one thing. I mean it’s clear that something like one out of 12 survived the third crusade, actually made it home to their homeland. And of course it then got involved in the lore that comes down through the ages to us today.

RAY SUAREZ: Are these people who were supposedly operating under codes of honor and chivalry and paying a lot of tension to things like romantic poems and all that, are they really governed by those norms? Is there something nobler or different about that age than what motivates generals and motivates heads of state today?

JAMES RESTON, JR.: Oh, I think there was an essential hypocrisy about the whole chivalry thing. Richard the Lionheart is a bloodthirsty character in every respect, and his reputation to the historian who really looks into it as opposed to the bedtime stories of the chivalrous knight who comes back to save Robin Hood from the evil wicked King John, the real Richard was the one who took Muslims after the fall of Acer, which was the toehold that the Christians maintained in which he came with all his forces and then it fell to him. One of his first acts was to parade 2700 Muslims outside of the town and to massacre them. And this has been devastation to his reputation for those historians who really wanted to look into him. But beyond that, he was a military strategist way ahead of his time. I mean the mobilization of those forces probably 100,000 or more, moving on Jerusalem is an area of fascination to military historians today.

RAY SUAREZ: What is it about that part of the world– or is it just a coincidence that the crusades were fought over that patch and we see 600, 800, then 1,000 years later, we’re still fighting over that patch of land?

JAMES RESTON, JR.: No, it is not a coincidence at all. It happens because the perceived holy sites of Christianity are– have fallen to the infidels and there is a class of personalities but there is also a clash of theologies here at its very basic. So the notion to Europe that the Holy Sepulcher was in the hands of the infidel was a terrible thought and something that was a noble quest to remove that. So these were real issues to the people of that time.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Warriors of God.” James Reston, jr., Thanks a lot.