On Sunday, Nov. 6 at 9 pm EST The History Channel will resurrect the era of the Crusades with a special program called “The Crusades: Crescent & The Cross.” I have not seen the program, so I cannot comment on its historical accuracy, fairhandedness or cinematic quality. Were it to air (I am tempted to say err) on Fox News, I would make every effort not to see it. But my academic bent idealistically treats “The History Channel” as National Geographic with substance.

I have, unfortunately, seen the advertisement for this program gracing the back of my recently arrived November Smithsonian magazine. I repeat “unfortunately” because either the ad maker has no clue what the program is trying to say (this is my hope) or else this special might as well be on Fox.

Let’s start with the hook. “CAN A PRESIDENT FINISH WHAT A KING, A SULTAN AND A POPE BEGAN?” Just about everything in this question (I do so hope it is meant to be rhetorical) is backwards. Surely, this program is not going to argue that Bush’s well-oiled but poorly thought out war in Iraq is a new crusade. Yes, our president uttered the inappropriate c-word (I am thinking of the non-sexual one here) soon after 9/11, but I do not think the Pentagon got its game-plan from Rev. Franklin Graham. I can only wonder what “King” will be targeted as the royal jump-starter for the Crusades? Unless this is a subliminal plug for Larry King Live on another channel. Nor do I remember any sultan in the Middle East or yet-to-be occupied Constantinople making a preemptive strike on Christendom. Why save the Pope for last, since Pope Urban’s fiery speech in 1095 C.E. is what historians used to cite as kindling the flame?

I suspect that the title reveals more than the creators imagined. Starting off in the wrong direction, it is “Crescent” that starts the show, but here it does not even have the certainty of a “the” in front of it. Is this crescent waning or waxing? One doesn’t need Mel Gibson to feel the definitive force of “The Cross.” All of this reduces the Crusades to a religious war, which is certainly one way they have been lied about over the centuries. But it might be more reflective of modern scholarship to retitle the show “The Crusades: Commercial Interests & The Crass.”

The blurb descends even deeper into a media-dug Black Hole. For those unable to read the fine print in the image shown here, the blurb states: “When the Crusades began, it wasn’t just the clash of swords that could be heard in battle, it was the clash of cultures. East vs. West. Crescent vs. Cross. Faith against faith. Yet neither King, nor Sultan, nor Pope could have predicted that well over 900 years later, we would still be dealing with the consequences. The Crusades. It started with a belief. No one could know where it would end.”

Remember that old quote attributed to Napoleon, among others, that “History is a pack of lies.” Some add “agreed upon” at the end, but it is hard for historians to agree upon most things. How then are we to unpack this advertising pitch for what purports to be an educational program? What were the boundaries of these pre-Ivanhoe cultures clashing away at each other in shining vs. oriental armor? Europe as any kind of meaningful unity did not exist. The Pope fancied himself the head of Christendom, but most of the earthly kings around him thought otherwise when it came to their divinely given domains. Nor was there much unity among Muslims in the East. If indeed this was East vs. West (another absurd rhetorical reversal since the West started the Crusades), then whose side was Muslim Spain on? Was the reconquest of Spain not part of the Crusades, or is that to be re-interpreted akin to a soccer player who hits the ball in his own goal? Were the Jews and Oriental Christians, indiscriminately slaughtered by the Crusaders on their way to find “The Cross,” part of the East or the West? Or were Jews at the time in trouble no matter which direction they took refuge in?

The ad maker takes an apocalyptic approach. No King, Sultan or Pope could have predicted what would happen 900 years later. Sounds logical enough. I doubt any commoner or revered theologian could have predicted this far into the future either. The faithful at the time probably believed the world would end at a moment’s notice. Peasants had little to live for; Crusaders were granted eternal life assurance as an incentive to risk their necks. Many Christians were no doubt surprised that the year 1000 did not bring back Christ to give hell to the infidels of the age. Muslims in the region could be forgiven thinking the world had indeed come near the end when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. In this dualing and dueling Crusade scenario, were Mongols and Tatars on the side of East or West? Or perhaps the program assumes neither of these far Easterners are worthy of being labeled “cultures”?

Sorry, whoever was hired by The History Channel, but it did not start with a belief nor did it end with one. The bloody history of the West is thought by many to have started with the Dark Ages, followed by constant wars between Christians that eventually melded ethnic enclaves into nation states in search of a continental identity. Since almost all wars just about everywhere up until the Age of Enlightenment (and beyond at times) were fought in the name of one God or another, it is possible to say that it was always about faith. But in that case it obviously was not really about faith, unless you are content with a tautology. I suppose crusading knights left the comforts of their father’s castles because what could be better than dying for the cause of Christ, slaughtering the heathen who dared build mosques instead of churches. And I imagine Muslim warriors were just as eager to get a free ticket to heaven and those eternally waiting virgins, who may or may not have had raisins in their hands. But I would hope a historical documentary would go beyond supposing and imagining.

There is only one thing that does ring true about this ad. I really do not know where it (the program) will end. I just hope it leaves the Presidents, Kings, Sultans and Popes on the sidelines. For history’s sake, keep the faith out of it, please.

Daniel Martin Varisco