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Interview on 'Saladin the Strategist'
I was interviewed by History in Story on my book Saladin the Strategist; the following text is cross-posted on the History in Story Substack, which I highly recommend. We discuss Saladin’s operational art, his evolution as a strategist, and his leadership. It was a pleasure talking with him, I hope you enjoy!
Why did you pick Saladin as the focus of your book?
I have always been interested in the Crusades and that part of the Middle Ages, but it was really a question about military theory that got me interested in him. I had been reading a lot of doctrinal writings on operational art, many of which described it as something that only emerged in the 19th or 20th century. This seemed completely wrong, and the one obvious counterexample I kept coming back to was the Battle of Hattin. Hattin was one of the most one-sided victories in history, won almost entirely through actions off the battlefield1—all the more remarkable when you look at how Saladin’s record as a tactician was not especially brilliant up to that point. This got me interested in how his campaign strategy evolved from when he first came to power in Egypt through Hattin and the Third Crusade.
I see. This brings to better light some of the ending remarks you made in the book. On the topic of Saladin and operational art, would you say his skill at organizing operations won him the Holy Land or was his overall strategy more key?
It was his operational art that won him his most important victory, but this ultimately followed from his strategy—the latter allowed him to refine the former over time. This is what’s most fascinating about Saladin. After his disastrous invasion of Palestine in 1177, he adopted a very cautious strategy toward the Crusaders: every campaign was carefully controlled, he never got over his skis, and he always contented himself with incremental gains. But he also positioned himself to win big if things did go right, and he was learning the whole time. You already see the basic prototype of the Hattin campaign by 1179, and each of his four successive campaigns represents an improvement. His approach toward the Muslim world was another major element in his strategy. Much of his success at Hattin came down to sheer manpower, which he only had from conquering territory and forcing neighboring princes to contribute soldiers.
Do you think that Saladin's overall strategy, one of caution and maximizing optionality, was more an adaptation to the failure of the 1177 campaign (Battle of Montgisard fame) or was it something deeper? Borne more from Saladin's own personal disposition?
I think it's something deeper. It’s always hard to judge someone’s temperament from such a distance, when our evidence for his character is pretty limited, but he always seems to err on the conservative side. Even accounting for 1177, his biggest failures come from an overabundance of caution. And he already shows signs of that risk-minimizing optionality-maximizing strategy in 1170, when he conducts his first independent campaign.
But 1177 is still important. It reinforces that cautious tendency, makes him determined not to repeat the same mistake. Which is ironic in a way, since it comes at the exact moment when he becomes strong enough to absorb the blow. He had taken a similar hell-for-leather approach in his two previous campaigns against a rival Muslim coalition, which made him the predominant power in the region. Circumstances forced him to be more daring on both occasions, and it worked out for him. So maybe he got cocky and thought he could just roll over the Crusaders. And then when he is subjected to a humiliating defeat yet doesn’t suffer any real consequences for it, he seems to realize that he is in a position to dictate the pace of events.
Could you go into some detail on the advantages which allow Saladin to dictate the pace of events against the Crusaders? And was this unique to Saladin or did other Muslim powers enjoy similar advantages? And did Saladin have the power to control the course of events with his Muslim enemies in a manner similar to the Crusaders? At least post 1177?
It was simply because he was much stronger than everybody else. Saladin emerged the clear winner from the wars of succession after his patron Nur ad-Din died in 1174, and by the summer of 1176, he controls Egypt and most of inland Syria. He’s defeated a coalition of Aleppo, Mosul, and other emirates twice in a row. Aleppo is left with little territory and is ruled by a boy, while the Mesopotamian princes have no appetite for a new war.
The Crusaders are a greater threat, but they have largely lost their ability to mount serious offensives. Every few years a nobleman will arrive from Europe with a large entourage, allowing them to attempt something more ambitious. But these reinforcements are temporary and sporadic, and there are often squabbles about what objectives to pursue—it’s hard to incorporate them into a consistent, coherent strategy. So the Crusaders are mostly limited to harassing actions, like incursions into Syria or raids on the caravan route to Egypt.
On the point regarding the temporary and sporadic reinforcements of the Crusaders, let's jump ahead to the Third Crusade. Saladin has followed up his victory at Hattin in 1187 by conquering most of the Levant. The Crusaders are penned up at a few coastal outposts. Saladin still has the overwhelming material advantage. Yet in the subsequent conflict, from reading your book it feels as if, he is always on the backfoot compared to the Crusaders - in particular Richard the Lionheart. Can you explain why that is?
By the time the Third Crusade arrives, Saladin no longer has that overwhelming material advantage. The siege of Acre is the first time in a long time that he’s fought an evenly-matched adversary, and it shows both the strengths and weaknesses of his strategic caution. On the one hand, he’s able to inflict some pretty heavy losses on the Crusaders whenever they venture out of their siege camp, but then the reinforcements keep coming and they’re able to bounce back from every crisis. Meanwhile, he’s straining his financial resources and his political capital keeping his allies and vassals in the field: he’s adopted a fairly passive approach, but time is not necessarily on his side.
But there’s also not a whole lot he can do. Once the Crusaders are dug in, it’s very hard to uproot them. They can last indefinitely with food brought in by ship, while every single assault on their entrenchments fails. And after the fall of Acre, Richard is tactically conservative but operationally aggressive—a big problem for Saladin, since tactics were always his weakness. This is partly a feature of the military system he’s inherited: it’s just not easy for an army built around horse archers to defeat a disciplined, well-supplied Western army that knows how to use combined arms. Only when Richard turns inland, where logistics are more of a problem, is Saladin able to check him.
One of history's bigger what if's is Frederick Barbarossa's untimely death in Anatolia en route to Anatolia. In light of your comments regarding the Crusader's already significant material gains due other Crusader contingents and the logistics of the situation would the arrival of the full German contingent have actually made a significant difference in the outcome of the 3rd Crusade in your opinion?
It’s a great counterfactual. If Frederick had lived, he likely would have reached Acre in early autumn with maybe 15 or 20,000 men. It’s hard to imagine the city holding out until the next year, which means the Christians are spared the heavy losses over the winter and the entire Crusade has a clear leader by the time Richard and Philip arrive the following spring. It’s plausible that the Christians take the field the that summer with an army substantially larger than Saladin’s, in which case they stand a decent chance of retaking Jerusalem and many other castles and towns.
But things are never that simple. There is bound to be bickering among the three monarchs. Bigger armies are even harder to feed, and the fundamental difficulties of moving inland still remain. It’s also hard to understate how much the prolonged siege of Acre demoralized the Muslim side. They lost a lot of men in repeated attacks on the trenchworks and were on the verge of outright insubordination by the end. Richard’s slaughter of the garrison made them even less enthusiastic about defending any fortified place in the subsequent campaign. So in many ways, Saladin too would have benefitted from a quicker decision.
If the Third Crusade had succeeded in restoring the Kingdom of Jerusalem, there is still the problem of holding onto it. The native barons had been virtually wiped out at Hattin; unless a large number of Crusaders were willing to stay behind (admittedly a possibility), it would be very hard to defend. So while Frederick’s survival probably would have given the Crusaders a much better chance of recovering what they’d lost, it was certainly no guarantee.
As you've hinted at and written about in your book, morale was quite low for Saladin's army for much of the Third Crusade. Yet, even just a few short months before the Siege of Acre begins, his armies are highly energized and motivated. What then changed, and how does this shed light on Saladin as a leader and motivator of men?
Well I wouldn’t say they’re highly motivated before the siege. It’s hard to gauge morale from the sources, as it’s usually only mentioned when there are problems. But his army has come down from the high of their incredible victories and they’ve already taken the richest of the spoils—the last thing they want to do is mop up one fortress after another. Already by the campaigning season of 1188, you see the allied contingents clamoring to go home in early autumn, before Saladin can take a major strategic objective. His household troops are obviously more enthusiastic, although they’re also made to campaign more continuously.
But if anything, that makes Saladin’s leadership during the Third Crusade even more impressive. He’s now faced with an open-ended fight against a rejuvenated enemy and has to keep the army together indefinitely, which he succeeds in doing for another three years. This owes partly to good management, rotating Egyptian troops with the Syrian and Mesopotamian contingents, but also his political skill and personal charisma. Saladin even says at one point during the siege, when he’s sick in bed and his lieutenants want him to order an attack, that the men won’t fight unless he’s personally present. He can only do so much, however, and it’s his men’s refusal to fight when he’s on the brink of destroying Richard that finally convinces him to sign a peace treaty.
I had not looked at the episode in the tent in same way that you just described before. Overall, it is impressive that he was able to keep his army on the field for 3 years continuously against the Crusaders. Let's move to the earlier part of Saladin's career. When he has just become master of Egypt and beginning to make his march on Damascus all the way to the Battle of Hattin. His army fights many enemies, Muslim and Christian alike. Do have any ideas on what Saladin's armies are motivated by during this period?
There are a variety of motives. Much of it was simple desire for plunder. A large part of the army came from the warrior aristocracy, which made its living from war—they naturally wanted to hitch their fortunes to the strongest horse. For others it was a question of security. The Damascus aristocracy went over to his side in the wake of Nur ad-Din’s death because they feared the Aleppo clique, while many of the Mesopotamian emirs later defected to his side because they wanted protection from Mosul—they fought out of mutual obligation, akin to feudal service in the West. Against the Christians, there was obviously a strong religious element too. There’s tremendous excitement for the Hattin campaign, which draws volunteers from far all over the Muslim world.
And what do you make of Saladin's motives? From deposing the Fatimids in Egypt to fighting Richard until the bitter end in the Third Crusade, your book deals equitably with the questions of his motivations. But where do you think Saladin ultimately falls on the spectrum of pious Muslim and self motivated warrior? Or perhaps is he driven by something else entirely?
Too hard to tell, I don’t think we can even judge the motives of most contemporary public figures all that well. I would guess that Saladin was motivated to a large extent by genuine sentiment, judging by his doggedness in prosecuting the holy war, but he was also capable of acting incredibly cynically against his Muslim rivals. So my answer would be “somewhere in between”, as unsatisfying as that is.
But I think focusing too much on inner motivation is risky for the historian. Both Saladin’s great admirers, like Stanley Lane-Poole or Hamilton Gibb, and those who took a more cynical view, like Andrew Ehrenkreutz, made errors when they try to judge his actions based on his character—this often obscured the more immediate factors that shaped his decision-making. My interest was more in *what* he was trying to accomplish, and how he went about it.
At several points throughout the book, you seem to hint that Saladin was a victim of his own success. Because of his overwhelming victories in the cause of Islam, as a figure, he was forgotten until revived in the 19th Century. One particular line struck me at the end of the book "This [the fading of Saladin's memory], ironically, is the greatest testament to his achievement." Could you explain a little more about this seeming paradox?
The Islamic world quickly moved on from the Crusades. After the mid-13th century, the region had much bigger preoccupations: the rise of the Mamluks in Egypt, the Mongol invasions, etc. Even the Crusades launched from Europe during this time, large as they were, were flashes in the pan, not serious threats to the balance of power. So Saladin’s victories had no real emotional resonance. To the extent that he was remembered at all, it was for replacing the Shi’ite Fatimids in Egypt with Sunni rule.
This point deserves elaboration. The Soviets often used ‘operational art’ as a shorthand for their specific solution to the problem of the long, continuous fronts which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was at odds both with their own formal definition and the historical origin of the term, which replaced the older meaning of ‘strategy’; the misunderstanding of these origins led Soviet and later writers to refer to operational art as something that emerged only with mass-mobilized armies in the 19th century. For more on this, see Part 3 in the series on the levels of war.