Strategic Culture and Adaptability: The Crusader Case Study

Strategic Culture and Adaptability

Much good work has been recently carried out in the fields of leadership styles and corporate cultures, and much of this work finds resonance in medieval military history.

What an army sets out to achieve can largely be explained by policy and leadership style.

How it behaves, and its underlying beliefs and attitudes, however, are better understood as its basic culture.

Culture in the Strangest Places

It is a well-known and recently much-studied phenomenon that armies tend to share common belief systems about how they should operate, how they develop strategy, and how they implement it. This ‘strategic culture’ dictates how an army ‘thinks’ and what its basic operating principles are. Beyond that, it also helps to explain how an army can adapt to change, as well as explaining, conversely, how it might be inflexible and incapable of change.

How can we apply these theories to the study of medieval military history? To test their relevance, let’s turn once again to our case study of the Franks in the Latin East and examine how cultural theory was reflected in their military practice.

One might expect fairly rudimentary societies such as the crusader states to be severely constrained in their thinking; we imagine that they might, for instance, have an overly reactionary ‘strategic culture’. These were, after all, basically feudal societies, with legal and economic systems firmly based on existing precedents and traditions; conservatism was built into the system to a very high degree.

And, on a superficial level, one can see this conservatism manifested in the behavior of some crusader armies and commanders. As we discussed in an earlier article, the battle at the Spring of the Cresson can be interpreted as the foolish knee-jerk response of a hidebound and overly rigid military elite.

Flexible and Adaptive

It would be a mistake to extrapolate too fully from such examples, however. The decision to charge at Cresson was ultimately a tactical error rather than a strategic choice. While individuals might make foolishly overconfident decisions on the battlefield, the practice of strategy by the crusader states was surprisingly subtle and adaptive.

Flexibility is one of the key components of any military culture. It was also, potentially at least, an obvious limiting factor for the development of strategy in the crusader states: in an era where religion played such a large part in everyone’s lives, there was an inevitable tension between faith and logic, ideology and pragmatism.

There were times when rationality was tested, but it is perhaps all the more surprising under the circumstances to see just how often it triumphed. As the men following Gerard of Ridefort at the Spring of the Cresson found out, knowing that God is on your side can only take you so far.

God Is On Our Side. But…

Like Gerard, the Duke of Alba was a pious man, but he was also the Spanish general responsible for implementing the vague and impractical policy objectives that constituted the scheme of the ‘Great Armada’—the invasion fleet that sailed against England in 1588. His misgivings about the strategy he was being asked to implement and the culture it arose from are a masterclass in the expression of understated frustration.

Writing to his king shortly before the fleet set sail, he complained that although ‘the principal means must come from God, as your Majesty very virtuously and piously suggests, it seems necessary to examine what human resources would be needed to carry out your wishes’.

His words echo the frustration felt by strategists throughout the ages. Grand objectives and a belief that God is on your side are an interesting starting point, but making them happen requires a much more prosaic understanding of resources and capabilities.

Pragmatism and Principle

The tension between pragmatism and principle inevitably plays out in the development of any strategy. And, in the case of the crusader states, one might imagine, there are surely few more absolute examples of how ‘principles’, however rigid or bigoted, might play out in practice. The binary nature of a religious war with Islam would certainly seem to suggest as much.

The principles of Christianity might appear absolute from a distance, but on the ground, and at that time, the demands of good strategy (‘pragmatism’ in the more literal sense that Machiavelli used the word) required a high level of flexibility and adaptation.

Almost as soon as the Crusaders arrived in the Middle East, we found them allying themselves with local Muslim warlords, recruiting large numbers of ‘heretical’ native Christians, and intermarrying as quickly as they could with Syrian, Armenian, and Arab women.

This was integration on a scale that would have been inconceivable in Catholic Christianity. The rigidity of prejudice and the stultifying effect this would have had on strategy could not survive contact with the harsh and threatening environment of Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The crusader states were under permanent threat, and any state under such threat could have no fixed moral principles. To paraphrase Lord Palmerston, such a state has interests rather than friends or rigid beliefs, and those interests need to be pursued with flexibility.

We All Need Friends

As individuals, everyone might have been extremely devout, but this piety could not always find an outlet in an effective strategy. The local Christians might be seen as ‘heretics’ by many of those back in the European homelands, but the Franks in the Levant never had the luxury of such easy certainties. They needed all the help they could get, wherever they could get it from.

Similarly, assistance from the Italian states for maritime blockades and siegecraft was often sought. When such help arrived, it might have been given with genuine piety, but was also accompanied by ferocious negotiations aimed at furthering their long-term commercial objectives. And their help was gratefully accepted, even in the face of such financial self-interest.

Although help from the Catholic West might be preferable, soldiers from Orthodox Byzantium could be every bit as useful. King Amalric of Jerusalem, for instance, went to great lengths to engage with the empire. Much of the last decade of his life was spent desperately organising closer links and joint military expeditions with Constantinople. Even after his death in 1174, continuing efforts were made to improve military cooperation between the Franks and their Orthodox neighbours.

Pragmatism was as fully ingrained in the policy-making of the crusader states as in any of our more modern, secular societies – it had to be.

Muslim Pragmatism

Much the same was true of their Muslim opponents, as pragmatism and the imperatives of survival imposed their own inexorable logic. Muslim states were societies with strict moral and behavioural codes. But, as with the Franks, it was far easier to express these codes from the pulpit or the minbar than on the battlefield or in the planning rooms of the state.

So, ironically, the best opportunities to oust the Crusaders in the early years of the twelfth century were thwarted as much by the active and deliberate interference of local Turkic players as by the efforts of the Franks.

In 1113, for instance, Mawdud, the leader of Mosul, who was coordinating the initial counteroffensive, was assassinated by his fellow Muslims. He had to be removed, not because he was ineffective but, on the contrary, because he was far too successful: he was unifying the Islamic cause in a way that was too threatening for many of the local players, who feared for their independence.

Similarly, when the Sultan of Baghdad tried once again, in 1115, to galvanise a unified response, the results were just as poor. His general, Bursuq, lord of Hamadhan, led an army to invade Frankish territory and found himself facing not just the Crusaders, but also their Muslim allies, the armies of Mardin and Damascus.

The Limits of Flexibility

Everyone knew that pragmatism and flexibility went hand in hand. Maintaining flexibility in strategic implementation—a lightness of touch that turns a fixed plan into an adaptable way to achieve policy objectives—is always vital to success.

This was an area that the Franks always found immensely difficult, for reasons that were largely beyond their control. Without regular armies or reliable long-distance communications, responding to enemy activity and mustering local forces was always going to be cumbersome.

Geography was another hugely limiting factor, particularly from the 1140s onwards, as the local Muslim states grew increasingly large and capable of surrounding the crusader states at every turn. Flexibility was also limited by an inherent lack of manoeuvrability on the ground. Fighting armies of horse archers with a steppe heritage, the heavy European knights and armoured infantry were permanently in danger of being outmanoeuvred.

For the Crusaders, the ability to develop flexible strategies was limited at every turn.

The King of Jerusalem did not have enough money for a fleet of his own, so if he needed naval assistance, he was forced to cajole, beg, or negotiate for help. These negotiations could often extend for years, at the end of which he might, just might, be able to get the help he needed, albeit at a cost he could probably ill afford.

The ability to manoeuvre and stay flexible was hard to find and always came at a high price. But the opportunity was grasped whenever possible. The manoeuvring we find around Saladin’s mega-armies in the 1180s, for instance, avoiding combat but limiting the enemy’s capacity for destruction, was proving frustrating for their Muslim enemies. It was only the ill-discipline and poor judgement of Guy of Lusignan and his advisers in 1187 that brought that period of painful but strategically correct evasiveness to a close.

To Do, Or Not To Do

Ironically, not making decisions can often prove to be the best course of action and the one most likely to retain strategic flexibility. As Guy of Lusignan showed at Hattin, a weak man trying to act decisively, behaving as he thought a strong man would, was a recipe for disaster.

Some of that flexibility was reflected in the ability to learn. Learning is a key part of strategic development, particularly when to stabilise, and when to stop. For every Alexander, ripping his way through the pages of history, there needs to be an Augustus, consolidating, embedding, and stabilizing.

The crusader states did this whenever they could. Even in periods of only moderate peace, the colonisation of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem gained rapid momentum, and men were brought over to populate settlements that could provide soldiers to defend the new states. And there was certainly a sense of institutionalised knowledge, precedents, and protocols that increased over time.

Flexibility As A Luxury

But the Franks never had the Augustan luxury of being able to draw a firm line around the boundaries of their states and say ‘enough’. Their resources were too meagre, and the pressures heaped upon them were too immense for such niceties. If they had succeeded in recovering Egypt for Christendom, they might have gained the resources to do so. But the failure of the attempts to conquer it in the 1160s spelt the end of any such dream.

Flexibility is at the heart of successful strategy, but this path is often denied to the crusader states. As the years progressed, there was increasingly little scope for flexibility, however hard they tried. They were adaptive on a tactical and operational level (for instance, in recruiting large numbers of their own light cavalry archers), because they could be.

But in a region increasingly dominated by macro demo- graphics and geopolitics they rarely had the luxury of flexibility on a strategic level.

The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble



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  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.


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