Crusaders in Iraq

In a recent New Yorker piece on the late SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Nicholas Schmidle writes,

Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War
through that prism. He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s
cross, wanting “everyone to know I was a Christian.” When he learned
that insurgents had placed a bounty on his head and had named him
al-Shaitan Ramadi—the Devil of Ramadi—he felt “proud.” He “hated the
damn savages” he was fighting. In his book, he recounts telling an Army
colonel, “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

Kyle is an interesting and tragic figure. He wrote a book. He became famous. He was killed by a soldier he was trying to help. But I just want to focus on that cross. Where did he get it? When did he get it? Did lots of people have them? Was it a SEAL thing? A sniper thing? What else can we find out about crusader iconography among the U.S. military deployed in the Islamic world?

There’s plenty to say generally about Christianity and the U.S. Military – on the left, there’s deep concern about “Christianism,” while the right accuses (falsely) Obama of wanting to cleanse Christianity from the armed forces as part of the broader right-wing-Christian-white-male persecution complex. I’m not going to parse this right now. I just want to know what semiotic value “the crusades” had to Kyle and others like him.

The broader context is my interest in a talk by famed journalist Seymour Hersh. In Doha, Qatar, in 2011, the man who exposed both Abu Ghraib and My Lai, gave a talk in which he literally accused the U.S. Military of being run by Crusaders. He said, according to the transcript:

That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large
percentage of the Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations
Command and Stanley McChrystal, the one who got in trouble because of the
article in Rolling Stone, and his follow-on,
a Navy admiral named McRaven, Bill McRaven — all are members or at least
supporters of Knights of Malta. McRaven attended, so I understand, the recent
annual convention of the Knights of Malta they had in Cyprus a few months back
in November. They’re all believers — many of them are members of Opus Dei. They
do see what they are doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some
military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of
the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims in the 13th century. And
this is their function. They have little insignias, they have coins they pass
among each other, which are crusader coins, and they have insignia that reflect
that, the whole notion that this is a war, it’s culture war. [My emphasis]

Now this is quite something for a world famous journalist, someone who has uncovered secrets in the past, to say. Reaction was negative. Foreign Policy – “a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe.” Washington Post – “his latest revelation is drawing some puzzled reactions and angry denunciations.”

One of the big problems:

One is his allegation involving McChrystal. A spokesman for McChrystal
said the general “is not and never has been” a member of the Knights of
Malta, an ancient order that protected Christians from Muslim
encroachment during the Middle Ages and has since evolved into a
charitable organization. These days, the Knights, based in Rome, sponsor
medical missions in dozens of countries. McChrystal’s spokesman, David
Bolger, said Hersh’s statement linking McChrystal to the group was
“completely false and without basis in fact.”

 As for the crusader coins:

Hersh declined to comment on some of the specific statements he made in
the speech, such as the notion that American military officers pass
“crusader” coins among themselves. “I said what I said,” he responded.
“I can’t get into it because I’m writing a book” about the small group
of neoconservatives who directed U.S. foreign policy in the Bush

 Hersh continued:

“I’m comfortable with the idea that there is a great deal of
fundamentalism in JSOC. It’s growing and it’s empirical. . . . There is
an incredible strain of Christian fundamentalism, not just Catholic,
that’s part of the military.”

So he ends up quite a way from saying “crusade.”

My general hypothesis, which I actually wrote about years ago,  is that the West preserved the language of Crusade for centuries, because (quoting myself), “Winners write the histories, but losers hold the grudges.” The Crusades re-emerged as a focal point in Islamic discourse in the breakup of the Ottoman empire, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the post-colonial reactions in the region. When Saddam called his enemies, “Crusaders and Zionists,” this was relatively new. I suspect the emergence of specific crusader imagery also dates to the first Gulf War, but where the lines of correlation and causation should be drawn, I lack the data to say.

So. We have a sniper with a self-defined “crusader cross.” Definitely something to watch for.

UPDATE 2/7/15 – Welcome new readers from my Guardian piece. This piece on crusader sub-culture is quite detailed. Thoughts on it are welcome.

UPDATE 2: Please note the date. This was written long before American Sniper came out and has not been revised.

6 Replies to “Crusaders in Iraq”

    1. David Perry says:

      Thank you Matt. I had missed both of those (and I should set up a blogroll). I miss a lot of good things on blogs. The pithy first one, in particular, is particularly useful. I still want someone to research the arrival of the crusader cross among U.S. military insignia.

  1. Nauplion says:

    In "Saving Private Ryan" the amazing sniper — I found myself cheering hard for him — was rattling off OT verses as he would pull up his rifle & aim.I don't think crusade gets into it very much, if at all. I think it has more to do with a spectrum of God (a lot of OT vengeance in there)+ Country + having a knack for guns. I'm not going to try to account for the generals & the K of M.

  2. David440 says:

    It comes down to this, if the radicals were not trying to take other peoples liberties and civil rights away from them and oppress their beliefs and their wills on them, then there would be no need to fight back. No need for snipers, no need for some individuals red crusader tattoo to become justification for radicalism. I like to believe that in the last 800 years the world has grown up and become smarter, even learned a few lessons from history of what not to do or what not to let happen. You can not judge a adult individuals by his action as a child. There can be no justification for whats going on in the middle east in the name of religion in our modern times! None what so ever.

  3. James Hicks says:

    I don't see the issue. The people I served with had no problem with Muslims who's desire was not the destruction of the West and moderate Muslims. If you want to say it's a Crusade against extremists Muslims then say it. Fine. It is in a way, even if those fighting against the Islamic extremists are atheists, it's still a Crusade against Ilamic Extremists. Not Islam.

Leave a Reply