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What Erasmus Knew (And We Didn't)

Jacob Boas

It has been reported that in the summer of 2003 Pentagon employees viewed a special screening of The Battle of Algiers, the late Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic film of terrorist insurgency and counter insurgency. Presumably the Pentagon's purpose in showing the film was to help it get a handle on the insurgency in Iraq. (Arguably and however belatedly, the film may have inspired President Bush's troop "surge.") Whoever came up with the idea of viewing The Battle of Algiers might have paired it with a reading of On the War against the Turks (1530), a disquisition on the perils of war with Europe's archenemy by the Dutch humanist and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1469 - 1536). The year before, the Ottoman armies under Suleiman the Magnificent had stood poised to take Vienna, failing, in the end, thanks to a fortuitous combination of effective defense strategies and unseasonably rainy weather. But despite their seemingly miraculous deliverance, few Europeans believed that they had seen the last of the Turkish host. Anti-Muslim feeling ran deep, and shouts of "'War on the Turks! War on the Turks!"' ran out across Europe.

It was against this backdrop of fear and anxiety that the acclaimed author of The Praise of Folly wrote On the War against the Turks (De Bellum Turco). In it Erasmus, a life-long opponent of war, urged his fellow Christians to think twice before rushing off to war against the Ottoman Turks. "Merely to clamor for war against the Turks," he wrote, "calling them inhuman monsters, traitors to the Church and a race tainted with all kinds of crime and villainy, is simply to betray the ignorant mob to the enemy."

Erasmus did not rule out such a war altogether. But if war was to be made - and with the mob howling for Muslim blood, he knew it well might -- it was imperative, he stated, "that our intentions be pure and honorable." Nothing good can come of a war against the Turks, he argued, "if we take up arms without correcting the errors which have provoked God to punish us through their barbaric cruelty." Among the errors he decried among his Christian contemporaries was a taste for cruelty that was the equal of, if not greater than, that manifested by the enemy. Another was a desire to possess the Turk's riches and "to rule his subjects," risking "the danger that we ourselves shall degenerate into Turks rather than bring them into Christ's fold."

A further danger of making war on the Turks, Erasmus warned, was that it could serve as a pretext for a "tiny clique" to seize power and use that power to undermine our freedoms, abrogating the rule of law, "removing the authority of parliaments," and plundering the people, so that by "overthrowing the tyranny of the Turks, ... we bring a new and worse tyranny upon ourselves."

A third danger, according to Erasmus, is that the money it takes to make war winds up in the pockets of the few. There are many "holy sermons" about "crusading expeditions" and "valiant deeds and boundless hopes," but in the end, remarked the humanist, noting how the collection monies and taxes have disappeared into the pockets of the war profiteers, "the only thing that has triumphed has been money."

Stripped of their Christian shell, many of the outcomes Erasmus predicted would flow from war on the Turks five hundred years ago have come to fruition since 9/11. Whatever our intentions in going to war with Iraq, pure and honorable they were not. We were lied to. The WMD's were non-existent, while the talk about bringing democracy to Iraq, from which it would spread like wild fire to the entire Middle East, was a smokescreen behind which to pursue hegemonic policies in a strategic and an oil-rich part of the world. Occupation of Arab lands, construction of bases throughout the Middle East, and blind support of Israel -- all have provoked hatred and inspired calls for revenge. These are errors that are crying out for correction.

As for Erasmus' warning regarding the seizure and consolidation of power under the cover of war, we have seen that happen as well. Habeas corpus is in tatters more; the invasion and occupation of Iraq has sapped our national treasure, in blood and in money; until last November's election and with Congress a rubber stamp, the Bushies have run the country as though it were a private fiefdom. We are a state in which the rule of law and the right to privacy are fast becoming dead letters.

One could say, with Erasmus, that the only winner in the war on terror and Iraq has been Big Business, with none bigger and more winning than the vice-president's former employer Haliburton, to say nothing of the billions of dollars that that cannot be accounted for at all.

Erasmus held up a mirror to Christian Europe, advising it to clean up its own act before setting out to settle scores with the Ottoman Turks. We would do well to heed the Dutchman's advice and reverse course while there is still time. We could start by ending the domestic surveillance program and restoring habeas corpus. We could quit operating on the principle that the sole superpower creates its own reality, that is, on the principle that might makes right. We could stop spending vast amounts of money on the military and pursuing hegemonic foreign policies. We could get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and remove our bases from the Middle East. Finally, we could try an even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For Erasmus war always was a last resort, to be made only when all other options had been exhausted, for, as he put it in 1515 in War Is Sweet to Those Who Don't Know It: "The truth is that no way leads more quickly and utterly to ruin the commonwealth than war. Even before you begin, you have already done more harm to your country than you would do good by being victorious."

Jacob Boas has his Ph.D. in European history from University of California, is an author of books and articles about the Holocaust, and currently a history instructor at Portland Community College and Linfield College; both in Oregon.

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