Pray Brethren

Pray Brethren

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Battle of Tours, 732 AD

On this day in the year 732, the century-long tidal wave of Islamic expansion came to an end at the Battle of Tours in modern day France.

Some scholars, however, downplay the significance of the battle. While it is true that the Battle of Tours was not of the same size and scope of a Gaugamela or even a Cannae, no one who honestly looks at a map of the period can deny Tour’s strategic significance at the time or its long term macrohistorical significance.

In the one hundred years following Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam stormed out of the Arabian Peninsula, conquered and converted Persia, captured the Holy Land, and seized Egypt, north Africa, Spain, and Asia Minor (what is today Turkey). Only Constantinople and the Byzantine use of Greek fire kept Islam from invading the Balkans and marching into the heart of Europe – which is precisely what happened after the fall of Constantinople to Islamic forces in 1453.

Islamic conquests from 622 through the mid-eighth century AD.

With the majority of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic control by 717, the Pyrenees presented the only modest obstacle to Islamic conquest of what is today France. In that very year, while Muslims lais siege to Constantinople, Islamic forces began crossing the mountains along the Mediterranean coast. This area of southern France, called Septimania, spent the next fifteen years under the dominance of Islamic rule. It was only a matter of time before an advance was made across the Pyrenees along the Atlantic coast.

Image Source: Battle of Tours at Wikipedia
When the advance finally came in 732, it was aided by forces marching from the Islamic Septimanian capital of Narbonne. The local Christian lord, Odo of Aquitaine, found himself caught between two forces attacking him from two directions. His only hope was to abandon his lands and flee north with his army in hopes of finding aid from the Franks, a Germanic tribe that had settled in Gaul as the Roman Empire collapsed.

There he met with Charles, who was effectively the king of the Franks but held only the title of prime minister out of deference to the Merovingians who still held on to the throne. Long had Charles known the Islamic threat to the south, and he had prudently prepared for war by steadily strengthening the Frankish army. Odo of Aquitaine pledged Aquitaine to the Franks in return for their protection and arms. Charles agreed and the united Christian forces marched south.

On October 10, 732, Charles earned the name “Martel” (“the Hammer”) at Tours as his men dealt a stunning defeat against the invading Islamic army. It was a rare instance of medieval infantry standing victorious against cavalry. At one point Charles was nearly struck down, but his comitatus, true to the noble Germanic warrior spirit, formed a wall of men around their leader and saved his life. The same could not be said of the Islamic leader, Abd-al-Raḥmân, whose death in the battle also meant a general retreat of Islamic forces.

A new power was rising. The German warrior wielding the Christian standard finally halted the Islamic advance in western Europe and marked strengthening ties between the Franks and the Catholic Church. For his part, Charles Martel aided St. Boniface’s missionary work in what is today Germany while the Church played a pivotal role in the peaceful transition of power from the Merovingians to the descendants of Charles – the Carolingians. Charles’ son, Pippin, finished driving Muslim forces out of Septimania around 759 while Charles’ grandson, Charlemagne, helped launch the 700-year long Reconquista (“Re-conquest”) of the Iberian Peninsula.

While Charles turned the tide, his grandson Charlemagne established a Frankish foothold in Iberia and began aiding in the re-conquest of what is today Spain and Portugal. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Strategy Games: The Gateway to Culture and Geopolitics

While we live in a very complex and multifaceted world, the events that shape the world – many of them involving the use of arms – are not irrational. In the realm of geopolitics, violence is very rarely senseless. The jihadis who attacked us on 9/11, for example, were neither nihilists nor anarchists and their attack was as much grounded in their geopolitics as their personal religious beliefs.

History’s great strategy games act as a meeting place of culture and geopolitics. Their creators, having themselves been formed by their culture’s worldview, introduce the player to a manner of strategic thinking and problem solving which roughly correlates to the broader geopolitical situation of their nation or civilization.

There are three classic strategy games that all men should have at some time in their lives played; three games which introduce them to the interconnectedness of culture and geopolitics. The following is an introduction to each.

1. Chess

As most readers of this blog have undoubtedly played Chess, the game needs little introduction. What makes it culturally unique is its focus on concentration of power with the aim of eliminating the other player’s forces and ultimately checkmating his king. Chess is the game of European-style warfare in which strategic thought emphasizes decisive battle through force concentration with the ultimate goal of destroying the enemy’s armies and decapitating his leadership or seizing his capital. For an excellent analysis on this style of warfare and its interconnectedness with culture, check out Victor Davis Hanson’s book Carnage and Culture.

2. Go

The difference between the games of Go and Chess are as vast as the difference between the cultures that produced them. Indeed, perhaps the only thing the two games have in common is that both are played by two players. Unlike Chess, the pieces used in Go are not ranked in a hierarchy of points and abilities; Go uses simple white and black stones all of equal power and value. Strength is to be found not in individual stones but rather in the formations the stones can make when placed next to each other.

The strategy of Go follows the strategy of Sun Tzu, who, placing little value on attacking enemy armies and seizing enemy cities or capitals, instructed would-be generals to attack an enemy’s strategy and an enemy’s alliances. In short, Sun Tzu said fighting is a general’s last resort; his best strategy is to win without fighting. Unlike Chess, which focuses on engaging the enemy’s forces and decapitating his leadership, the masters of Go engage in limited fighting across a large grid board. Their goal is to seize as much territory of the board as possible without a great deal of fighting between formations. New Go players often treat the game like Chess, with many stones being captured on both sides – but such aggression leads only to defeat when matched against a master.

In his work, On China, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued that modern Chinese foreign policy could only be discerned by one who knew the strategic thinking of Go along with the cultural past underlying its conceptual framework.

3. Diplomacy

While Kissinger drew heavily from the game of Go in his analysis of China, his own personal favorite board game is Diplomacy, a game also favored by President John F. Kennedy. The game's creator, a Harvard graduate who was fascinated as a child with his an old book of maps he found in the attic, died this past February.

Like Chess and Go, Diplomacy uses no dice; unlike Chess and Go, Diplomacy is a seven-player game set in the real life geopolitical climate of pre-World War I Europe. As the name suggests, Diplomacy requires the social skills needed to maintain the balance of power between other nations while finding ways to increase one’s own political and military expansion. The original title of Diplomacy was Realpolitik – and players of the game experience firsthand the international power politics that brought about the Great War and why President Washington implored future American statesmen to avoid getting entangled in a messy web of overseas alliances.

For those who play Diplomacy, the game teaches geography, history, and a hefty dose of social skills. Indeed, where an aggressive, Chess-like strategy is a no-starter in Go, the silent strategist, the Go master, and the arm chair general will all find themselves quickly behind in a game of Diplomacy where face-to-face negotiation is a prerequisite for advancement. Since the death of Allan Calhamer, the game’s creator, his daughter has received countless letters and emails from Diplomacy players and this is how she summed up their content:
“…what I'm seeing over and over again in these emails is that the recurring theme is: ‘I was a really, really nerdy awkward kid who had trouble relating to people, but because ‘Diplomacy’ required interpersonal skills and required you to get people to do what you wanted them to do, that's how I built my social skills.’”
Whether we learn decisive battle from Chess, the power of order and formation from Go, or how to negotiate international affairs and territorial boundaries from Diplomacy, these three games remain quintessential classics which introduce us to the larger world of culture, geopolitics, and strategic thought. If you haven’t played these games, it’s time for you to visit a game store and invite some friends over for a game day. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Pope of Christian Unity and the Unity of Faith

Pope Benedict XVI may well be known as the Pope of Christian Unity. In his short pontificate, he not only advanced an unparalleled dialogue with the Orthodox churches, but he also found a way for Anglicans to return to full communion without losing their rich liturgical heritage while also liberalizing the use of the Latin Mass for Catholics who wish to share in its timeless beauty and power.

In his writings, however, Pope Benedict contrasts the unitive and social character of faith with the individual character of philosophy:
“One could say epigrammatically that faith does in fact come from ‘hearing’, not – like philosophy – from reflection. Its nature lies in the fact that it is not the thinking out of something that can be thought out and that at the end of the process is then at my disposal as a result of my thought. On the contrary, it is characteristic of faith that it comes from hearing, that it is the reception of something that I have not thought out, so that in the last analysis thinking in the context of faith is always a thinking over of something previously heard and received.”

“In philosophy, the thought precedes the word; it is after all a product of the reflection that one then tries to put into words; the words always remain secondary to the thought and thus in the last resort can be replaced by other words. Faith, on the other hand, comes to man from the outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it. It is---let me repeat----not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me… and lays and obligation on me.”

Philosophy arises out of an “essentially individualistic structure” and is “by its nature the work of a solitary individual, who ponders as an individual on truth.” The philosopher’s thought or reflection “only becomes communicable later, when it is put into words, which usually make it only approximately comprehensible to others.

“In philosophy, what comes first is the private search for truth, which then, secondarily, seeks and finds a travelling companion. Faith, on the other hand, is first of all a call to community, to unity of mind through the unity of the word. Indeed, its significance is, a priori, an essentially social one: it aims at establishing unity of mind through the unity of the word. Only secondarily will it then open the way for each individual’s private venture in search of truth.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Re-Posted: Ending Caliphate Dreams

Today marks the anniversaries of two important battles in a war against the Islamic caliphate which has long sought to rule the world. 440 years ago today, Catholics throughout the world were called to pray the Rosary as the Islamic invaders sent a massive fleet out to sea with the Italian peninsula as the immediate prize. The Protestant north was nowhere to be found among the defending Christian fleet – perhaps, they thought, the destruction of the Catholic south was well-deserved. Rome had already been ravaged by a Protestant-led army on May 6, 1527 (to this day new recruits to the Vatican’s Swiss Guard are sworn in on May 6 as a reminder of their duty to lay down their lives in defense of the Pope), and now, forty-four years later, all of Europe would see if God had finally lifted His mantle of protection from the Catholic Church.

Defeat of the Catholic fleet would mean the military decimation of Catholic Europe and an even deeper moral defeat in the eyes of the Protestant north.

The Catholics, however, had a secret weapon: the Queen Mother of God and Ark of the New Covenant. Described as “the world’s first love” by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Mary is not only God’s ideal woman (He choose her as His mother after all) but she is also prefigured in the Old Testament in the figures of Israel’s queen mother and the Ark of the Covenant. In short, the kings of Israel never ruled with their wives as queen but rather with their mothers – and just as Jesus perfects God’s promise that a king will sit on David’s throne forever (Jeremiah 33:17), Mary shares in Christ’s reign as Queen of Heaven and Earth. Now the Hebrew root of Queen Mother comes from a word meaning warrior – a role which Mary played spiritually at Lepanto. Lastly, Mary is the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant in her carrying of Christ (and for more on this, check out this scriptural comparison of between the Old and New Testaments on the Ark and Mary). Just as the Israelites carried the Ark into battle, so too will Catholics at Lepanto – and they did this in more ways than one!

As a prelude to the battle, Pope St. Pius V called on all Catholics to arm themselves with Mary’s intercession in spiritual warfare. The Catholic armada – largely outnumbered by the Islamic fleet – was led by a multinational, ragtag group under the command of Don Juan of Austria. If Austria provided the leader, Venice provided the six “high-tech” galleasses which proved so technologically crucial in battle. Additional spiritual warfare was brought to bear in a physical manifestation by the Knights of Malta, a group of warrior monks founded in 1023 to protect pilgrims and sacred places in the Holy Land. The biggest weapon of the fleet, however, was the Mother of God herself, provided by the Spanish via a replica of the Our Lady of Guadalupe image from the New World. Having been pressed against the original, it was brought to the Old World and mounted on Don Juan’s flagship – a ship which would soon also carry the head of the Islamic fleet’s commander mounted on a pike.

Though the feast day has been re-named a much less militaristic “Our Lady of the Rosary” (due to her victorious intercession through the Rosary), her intercession is still invoked by Catholics – especially Catholics at war on October 7.

Today, however, is also the ten year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. Sadly there are Catholics using this day to pray the Rosary and march against war. If anything, we should follow the example of the early Christians who prayed for military victory even if they themselves were not on the battlefields in great numbers. Lepanto, however, was a military victory of Catholics seeking to end the caliphate dreams of the Islamic caliphate. This dream has been reawakened in the jihadists and their supporters. Instead of protesting, let us take recourse to the Rosary and pray for victory on foreign battlefields. Let us pray our civic and military leaders protect Christians overseas as much as anyone else and that they have the wisdom to outsmart those who seek to overthrow the nations under God.

This article was originally posted on October 7, 2011.