»  National Review Online

April 19th, 2002

  Attitude Adjustment


The battle of the Lechfeld, which was fought on a rainy Friday in August of A.D. 955, does not figure in any of those books describing the most decisive or most significant battles in world history — books by historians like Edward Creasy or our own Vic Hanson. This is a shame, and a bit unfair, but understandable. Lechfeld was decisive, very decisive, but it was decisive only for one small and inconsequential nation: Hungary. Even if not of any great moment to the world at large, though, the battle of the Lechfeld deserves a chapter all to itself in the annals of Attitude Adjustment.

The Hungarians had first showed up in Europe some decades earlier as marauders from the east. Brilliant horsemen, sweeping across the landscape with terrible swiftness on their light steppe ponies, overwhelming the clumsy knights of early-medieval Europe with thick showers of arrows, they terrorized the continent from the late 9th century on. Gibbon speaks of "the black swarm of the Hungarians," and some scholars think that the word "ogre" originates in the old Slavic word Ugri, meaning "Hungarian." Another historian, writing of the situation in Europe round about A.D. 900, says:

The unhappy condition of the West at the time is well shown in the history of Burgundy, a state which would appear to be comparatively inaccessible, but which within half a century was raped by Viking, Moslem and Magyar in turn.

["Magyar" is the Hungarian word for "Hungarian."]

Well, in summer of 955 the Hungarian army was enjoying a razzia through southern Germany, in support of the enemies of the German king, Otto the First. Unfortunately for them, Otto was a great general, while their own leader — he rejoiced in the name of "Bloody Bulcsu" — was a mediocre one. Otto met the Hungarians at the Lechfeld in Bavaria and, after a bitter all-day battle, routed them. According to national legend, only seven soldiers got back to Hungary alive, out of an initial host of 40,000. (Otto's army was only half the size, making his feat even more impressive.) "The loss of the Hungarians was greater in the flight than in the action," says Gibbon, "and their past cruelties excluded them from the hope of mercy."

After Lechfeld, the Hungarians abruptly stopped raiding and settled down to farm the Pannonian plain. Forty years later, their great king Stephen embraced the Cross, and the transformation of the savage Magyar horde into the Christian Kingdom of Hungary was complete. Attitude adjustment, see?

History contains many other instances of attitude adjustment, of course. The Roman conquest of Britain occurred, in theory, with the fall of Colchester in A.D. 43; but it was not a fact until the crushing of Boudicca's rebellion 17 years later, with a "butcher's bill" in six digits. Only then did the British adjust their attitude and become good citizens of Rome. More familiar to Americans are Sherman's "pacification" of the South, and the thorough and devastating defeats of Germany and Japan in WW2. In every case, those who had suffered bloody and catastrophic defeat were thereby persuaded to give up a fight they saw all too clearly they could not win, and adjusted their attitude to deal with the new reality.

All of which came to mind, of course, as a result of reading daily news and comment about the Middle East this past two weeks. My personal approach to Middle East commentary is that in a matter as deep, fraught and tangled as this, it is not a bad idea to see what really well-credentialed commentators have to say. Now, I don't mean to imply that such pundits are going to be infallibly correct. Seriously well-credentialed people are often seriously wrong. It was not — or not just — amateur bloviators who failed to foresee the collapse of the USSR; plenty of experts got it wrong, too. Some extremely well-credentialed persons screwed up the Vietnam War, "lost China," slumbered through the later months of 1941, failed to come up with anything to fix the Great Depression, and so on. Still, other things being equal, you are considerably more likely to gain genuine understanding from reading Professor Polyglot than from surfing the thoughts of Billy Blogger.

In re the Middle East, hardly anybody is better credentialed than Walter Laqueur. A bibliography published on Laqueur's 65th birthday in 1986 ran to sixty-six pages — and that only covered English-language publications, and omitted a full decade's worth of daily journalism. Laqueur has written a shelf-full of books on European history, the Middle East, Zionism, terrorism, Soviet affairs, US foreign policy, and so on. This man is, in short, a heavy hitter. (He is currently co-chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and InternationalStudies.) So what does this seriously well-credentialed person have to say about the current Mideast situation? Well, in the Op-Ed pages of the Wall Street Journal on March 27th, Walter Laqueur unburdened himself. Key passage:

However inhuman it sounds, the conflict will have to run its course, until both sides have suffered up to and past their breaking point. Only then will there be a willingness to compromise. At the moment, any outside attempt to stop the fighting will not succeed, or will do so only for a very short time.

I think there is some weakness of logic there. Surely it is not necessary for both sides to suffer "up to and past their breaking point"? So long as just one of them reaches that point, the conflict is over. And whether a "willingness to compromise" will follow, depends (it seems to me) on which side that is. If the Israelis reach that breaking point first, then Israel will be destroyed, and her people killed or scattered, for the third time in history. If the Arabs reach it first, then they will undergo attitude adjustment. That is, they will awaken from their delusions of grandeur to perceive the dismal failure of their societies in this modern age. Then they will embrace the Cross … Well (and with all respect to Ann Coulter), that is surely too much to hope for; but they will at least embrace constitutional politics and rational economics.

Which one of these eventualities will come to pass, I don't pretend to know. At this point, either seems possible. Israel, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is losing the demographic battle, and labors under all the disadvantages that a modern democracy has when dealing with amoral, unprincipled guerillas supplied from a hinterland of hostile states. On the other hand, the more I learn about the modern Arabs, the more vast and hopeless appears the failure of their societies — political failure, cultural failure, economic failure, and military failure. Numbers alone don't decide these issues when the systemic gap is wide enough. In the Opium Wars, a few hundred British sailors, working at the end of five-month lines of communication, humbled the Chinese Empire, population over 300 million. Even as the Arabs are pulling ahead in numbers, they are sinking ever deeper into despotism and spiritual squalor. (The current flowering of Islamic fundamentalism is a symptom of that squalor, not a remedy for it.) I wouldn't personally bet any money on the final outcome of the Arab-Israeli struggle.

"The conflict will have to run its course … any outside attempt to stop the fighting will not succeed, or will do so only for a very short time." It seems a cruel thing to say — yes, an "inhuman" thing — but I believe Laqueur is right on this central point. Attitudes in the Middle East will not adjust until there has been a Lechfeld, a march through Georgia, a Berlin, a Tokyo (God help us, please, not a Hiroshima). All the "peace process" machinations, all the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, all the "shuttle diplomacy" busyness is just putting off the evil day. Current U.S. policy — jumping in like a nervous referee to stop the fight as soon as blood is drawn — just postpones the necessary attitude adjustment, and ensures that the eventual great clash will be more horrible.