The World’s Longest War

Iceland at the moment is experiencing tremendous volcanic eruptions.  Iceland is prone to this kind of thing because it is situated at a one of those spots on the Earth where two tectonic plates collide.  They rub against one another and create an opening for the super-hot stuff under the terrestrial surface to leak upward.  This has been going on for millions or billions of years.

If the world of geology has tectonic plates, so, metaphorically speaking, has the world of geopolitics.  They too collide and produce volcanic eruptions.  The most persistent of these collisions take place in the region of the Earth where Europe and Western Asia rub against each other.  I mean the Mideast.  The current struggle between Israel (an essentially European country) and Hamas is but the latest instance of a struggle that has been going on for thousands of years — the world’s longest war, we may call it.

Western Asia for thousands of years has had a lust to conquer Europe, and Europe for thousands of years has had a corresponding lust to subdue Western Asia.  Since the United States is the leading “European” country in the modern world, just as Rome was the leading European country in the ancient world, this Israel vs. Hamas war is our war.

In a curious bit of historical irony, the Jews of Palestine were a Western Asian people when they struggled against Hellenized Syria in the age of the Maccabees and against the Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.  But now the Jews of Israel are a European people as they do battle against the latest warriors of Western Asia.

When did this struggle begin?  We could say, I suppose, that it began about 1200 B.C. with the Trojan War between the European Greeks and the Western Asian power of Troy and its allies.  The first great work of European literature was The Iliad, a saga of that first struggle.  (The Old Testament is a work of Western Asian literature.  The New Testament is a mixture of European and Western Asian elements.)

But let’s limit our story to solid historical facts.  In that case, the great struggle began in the late 6th century B.C., when the Persian Empire demanded the submission of the Greek cities of Asia Minor.  (That there were Greek cities in Asia Minor, the western edge of Western Asia, is evidence of a prior invasion of Asia by Europeans.)  This first historically recorded conflict reached a climax about the year 480 B.C., when Xerxes, the “Great King” of Persia, invaded Greece with a great fleet and an enormous army.  Greece survived, winning two crucial battles: a battle at sea (Salamis) in 480 and a land battle (Platea) in 479.  The defeated Persians went home and never again seriously threatened European Greece.

The next great phase of the Europe-versus–Western Asia struggle came in the 330s and 320s B.C., when Alexander the Great, in the most brilliant campaign in military history, conquered the vast Persian Empire — a realm that included the lands in which are found such present-day “hot spots” as Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. 

The three great wars between Rome and Carthage (the Punic Wars) were part of this Europe-versus–Western Asia struggle.  For Carthage, though its empire was located at the western end of the Mediterranean, was actually a Mid-Eastern society and culture, a colony founded by settlers from Phoenicia, modern Lebanon.

For the next 2,000 years the struggle between Europe and the Middle East continued on many battlefields: North Africa, Spain, France, Palestine, the Balkans, Asia Minor.  Sometimes one antagonist flourished, sometimes the other. 

The sudden and dramatic rise of Islam in the 7th century consolidated and strengthened the forces of Western Asia in a remarkable way, permanently Islamizing the Middle East and North Africa and tipping the balance in favor of Mid-Eastern supremacy for many centuries — just as, later, the rise of modern science, industry, military hardware, and organizational skills re-tipped the balance in favor of Europe.  The seesaw nature of the long contest should remind us that the European upper hand of recent centuries is not necessarily fated to endure.

By the 19th century, the Turks and Arabs had fallen far behind the Europeans in economic and military development.  Europeans, especially the British and French, were able to “colonize” much of the Arabic (or Western Asian) world.  Among these colonists were European Zionists who settled in Palestine.  These pioneering Jews represented no great power, and they were the only European colonists who burned their bridges behind them.  They were absolutely determined to stay in Palestine — for if things went bad, they, unlike the British and French, had no European homeland to retreat to.

In the aftermath of World War II, a Mid-Eastern counter-offensive against the dominance of Europeans advanced under the flag of Pan-Arabism; more recently, it has proceeded under the banner of militant Islamism.  Since the United States is now the principal “European” country, it is no surprise that one of the chief objects of Mid-Eastern animosity is now America.

This is a pessimistic analysis I have offered, and it warrants a pessimistic prognosis.  There is no realistic hope for anything like a “permanent” settlement of the conflict between the world of Europe and the Islamic world.  Neither side can expect total victory over the other.  Sad to say, the best that policy-makers can aim at is a mitigation of the conflict and a minimizing of collateral damage when fighting breaks out again, as it surely will.

David Carlin’s most recent book is Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church (Lectio Publishing, 2023).

Image via PickPik.

If you experience technical problems, please write to