In the late 13th Century, Italy was a battleground for the rival imperial interests of France and Germany. The battle had swayed back and forth, but at long last, French supremacy seemed assured, thanks in large measure to the election in 1281 of Pope Martin IV, a Frenchman ready, willing, and able to serve the interests of the French royal house. The French dared to dream not merely of extending their power and influence throughout all of Italy, but even to Constantinople and the Eastern Church. All Christendom would be united under the French banner.
All was well until the Easter Monday of 1282. A handful of French soldiers garrisoned in Palermo, Sicily, got a bit drunk as the town waited for Vespers, the ringing of church bells at sunset to signal the beginning of a night-long prayer vigil. A drunken French sergeant was drawn to a married woman and began following her around, showering his unwanted attentions on her. The husband, angered beyond endurance, pulled a knife and stabbed the French soldier to death.
This unleashed a torrent of pent-up hostility towards the French “occupiers,” hostility carefully cultivated for some time by agents of Constantinople eager to frustrate French ambitions. The bells tolled as men ran throughout Palermo shouting “Death to the French.” By Tuesday morning, some two thousand French men, women, and children lay dead. The French were ultimately ejected from Sicily, Spain entered the fray, and French dreams of an empire stretching from Paris to Constantinople were doomed.
Foreign forces in a strange land, resentful locals, religious rivalries, unbridgeable cultural gaps, competing interests eager to foment trouble—kings and presidents drawing their grand designs, only to find them ruined by the unpredictable acts of soldiers wounded in spirit by the bludgeoning that war and occupation inflict on the moral compass. Sound familiar? It should.
It has been said of those who forget history that they are doomed to repeat it. For sure, but there is more to it than that. War is embedded deep within our genetic code. Killing remains the ultimate means of addressing injustice when all else fails. And all too often, all else does fail, leading us to repeat history over and over.
The Terminator had it right; it is in our nature to destroy ourselves. Until we fix that, we can only look forward to more of the same, be it Sicily in 1282 or Afghanistan in 2012.
The inspiration for this essay came from A. N. Wilson's book, Dante in Love. This Wikipedia article contains an excellent summary of the events leading up to and following the War of the Sicilian Vespers.