• Adrian J. Boas

On Fear and Anticipation

Claudius Jacquand, A fanciful painting of Jerusalem under siege, Palace of Versailles [Public domain]

A city under siege is better than a city awaiting siege. Under siege people know what they must do. They are occupied in defending themselves. But a city awaiting siege is in a state of panic. When you have something to do you do not have the leisure to allow your thoughts to get the better of you. But when you are awaiting an attack you have little to do other than to imagine what fate awaits you, and what you imagine is invariably the worst possible outcome.

Take for example Saigon in the spring of 1975. The South Vietnamese capital had been fairly peaceful throughout the war, and its population had endured relatively little suffering. The airport, Tan Son Nhut, was described by one visitor as the busiest in the world, obviously because of the American military presence (a flight I was on during the peak of the war in June 1969, landed at Saigon airport, and indeed there was a noticeable presence of military aircraft on the tarmac, but otherwise it appeared much like any other airport). There was occasional hostility to the presence of American soldiers, the presence of refugees was prominent as was that of the maimed, and there were complaints that prices had skyrocketed and that services had declined, but by and large, Saigon in the years preceding its collapse was not very different from any other South-East Asian city. But by April 1975 the American and South Vietnamese defences were collapsing, the communist forces had reached a mere 42 kilometres from downtown Saigon and things were moving with extreme and frightening rapidity. The tearful resignation of the president on 21 April was followed by the first rocket attacks on Saigon in more than 40 months on April 27. Finally came the panic-stricken flight of Americans and American supporters culminating in Operation “Frequent Wind” on 29-30 April, when helicopters landing on the roof of the American embassy and the frantic struggle of people to board them provided the iconic image of American defeat. The unconditional surrender of South Vietnam came at 1.24 pm on the 30 April. The suddenness and speed of this collapse would have left the population of the Saigon reeling and entirely unprepared. The fear that spread through the city was intensified by the understandable expectation that the communists would carry out a bloodbath of reprisals.

Things would have been similarly spiralling out of control in Jerusalem in September 1187. After the unequivocal defeat at the Horns of Hattin in July, in which the Frankish army had been vanquished, the king taken into captivity and the Holy Cross, symbol of heavenly support for the Christians, taken by Saladin, the kingdom had collapsed like a house of cards. By late September only Tyre and Jerusalem, some scattered territory in the heart of the country and a handful of fortresses were still held by the Franks. In September Eraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote an anguished letter to Pope Urban III in Rome.* He listed the disasters and named the cities that had fallen: "...Gibelet, Beirut, Sidon, Acre Tiberias, Nazareth, Sebaste, Nablus, Haifa, Caesarea, Arsuf, Jaffa, Ascalon, Lydda, Toron of the Knights, Mirabel, Bethlehem and Hebron..." a list that begins with the most distant and approaches Jerusalem like a tightening noose. To strengthen this image, he stated that Jerusalem " now so tightly surrounded by the enemies of the Cross of Christ that not a single inhabitant can go outside its walls."

At this extremely late stage the patriarch appears to have harboured a remarkably unrealistic hope. He writes: "But unless... you, father shall have pity on us in the final, fearful moment of our necessity by encouraging by your letters and personal messengers all the princes of the western world to come to the aid of the Holy Land as quickly as possible, we are not at all confident of being able to defend them for a half a year." A half a year indeed! By the time his letter would reach the pope the city would already be in Saladin's hands. Could Eraclius possibly have believed that Jerusalem could hang on for six months, let alone six weeks (the well-fortified city of Acre had fallen in days) and could he have expected so quick and positive a response from the western leaders? Was this not rather like Hitler's fantasies of last-minute salvation when he was in the bunker beneath the Reichstag and the Russian army was shelling the outskirts of Berlin?

* Malcolm Barber and Kieth Bate, trans., Letters from the East. Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th - 13th Centuries, Farnham U.K. and Burlington U.S.A., 2013, pp. 80-82.