The War Nerd: The Day After 9/11

By Gary Brecher , written on September 12, 2014

From The War Desk

The big anniversary is here again. The big Muslim/Western confrontation. Only it wasn’t on September 11, it was actually September 12. And it wasn’t just a couple of buildings falling down in Manhattan, it was way bigger than that. Those two towers that went down in Manhattan are like a counter-illustration of the old Phil 101 koan, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it…” This version goes, “If a couple of buildings fall down right down the street from the HQ of every major news organization, do they ever shut up about it?”

So forget about that over-hyped demolition video. I’m talking about the real thing: Vienna, September 12, 1683: An Ottoman army, 140,000 Turks and assorted Balkan and Tatar allies, dug in outside the walls of Vienna. 30,000 Austrian villagers held as hostages. A tiny, starved garrison of about 11,000 patrolling the walls of the city, dreaming of All-U-Can-Eat Bratwurst.

Quite a story. I’ve had a lot of requests to write about it. But I kept shying away, anniversary after anniversary, because the Siege of Vienna is the one thing that attracts loons even better than the Book of Revelations. For example, remember Anders Breivik, who took shooting fish in a barrel to new lows by massacring Scandinavian socialist kids trapped on an island? Well, the anti-Muslim blog that inspired him is a sleazy blog called The Gates of Vienna, a heavy-handed allusion to 1683. Their slogan is, “We are in a new phase of a very old war.”

It’s a “new phase” all right. The first one was real; this one is a joke. Anders Breivik sits in the most luxurious prison ever built, whining that he can’t get decent Playstation games:

[Breivik] …demanded the replacement of a PlayStation 2 games console for a more recent PS3 "with access to more adult games that I get to choose myself" as well as a sofa or armchair instead of a "painful" chair.

But don’t you worry -- those ferocious Norwegian peaceniks came up with a way to punish Breivik for his crimes. They sang at him. Yup, 40,000 Norwegians, in public squares from Oslo to Narvik, all singing a Pete Seeger song, “Children of the Rainbow” right into Breivik’s cell, as he writhed in his “'painful' chair.” That’ll teach him to kill 77 kids! The Texas penal system ain’t got nuthin’ on Norway when it comes to cruel and unusual.

Tastes differ, of course; if Breivik had killed anyone I cared about I’d be thinking more along the lines of, “How can I hire a couple of lifers to gouge the bastard’s eyes out with a prison spork?” But the Norwegians are some kind of new breed of non-biting humanity, and they decided the only revenge high-minded and passive-aggressive enough to suit them was to sing at this whiny mass murderer. The greatest Norwegian hero of all, Egill Skallagrimsson, must have been rolling in his grave that day hard enough to set seismographs across the Baltic into the red — because Egill wasn’t just a proud warrior, he was also a talented poet, so listening to Pete Seeger’s lyrics would have been true torture for him. No one ever accused Seeger of having literary talent — in fact, I can’t think of a better way to show the difference between Vienna, 1683, and the world of Anders Breivik than to quote this immortal verse:

Some hope to take the easy way: Poisons, bombs. They think we need 'em. Don't you know you can't kill all the unbelievers? There's no shortcut to freedom

You know you’re in the hands of a real master when you come across a rhyme like “need’em/freedom.” But it’s the next-to-last line that really gets at the difference between the Breivik Era and the 17th century: “Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers?” That line probably produced a lot of enthusiastic nodding among the potheads in Oslo, but every single participant in the Siege of Vienna, on both sides, would have considered it odd and defeatist. Their attitude was simple: “Maybe not *all* of them, but we can sure thin their ranks!”

There was no talk about rainbows or unicorns on the fault line between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire during the Siege of Vienna. Sultan Mehmet IV explained the program to Leopold I, the Habsburg Emperor, in pretty simple, concise terms:

"We order You to await Us in Your residence city of Vienna so that We can decapitate You... (...) We will exterminate You and all Your followers... (...) Children and grown-ups will be exposed to the most atrocious tortures before put to an end in the most ignominious way imaginable..."

Christian Europe was equally blunt and to-the-point. Martin Luther preached that the Turks were “agents of the Devil” — and was still accused of being soft on Turk-ism by more hot-headed soldiers of Christ.

Turkish armies had been pushing North and West from Anatolia long before they finally took Constantinople in 1453. The Battle of Kosovo Field, the tragic defeat that still makes Serbs weep in their slivovitz, happened in 1389, more than a half century before Constantine XI, last Byzantine Emperor, died fighting on the walls of Byzantium. And once the Serbs were crushed, the rest of the Balkans fell easily to the Ottomans. To the terrified Central European elite, the 16th century Ottoman Empire seemed to be exploding in all directions—taking Cyprus from the VenetiansRhodes from the Knights, and besieging Vienna for the first time in 1529.

The 1529 siege failed, and the Ottoman army did what it usually did after a failed attack: massacred all prisoners and hostages. By the way, there’s a meme bouncing around the more gullible shores of the net that the Ottomans were actually tolerant, misunderstood, ahead of their time. Uh, no. Ask the Assyrians, the Ionian Greeks, the Armenians — God, the Armenians, who aren’t even allowed to talk about what happened to them! — Nope, the Ottomans were not Children-of-the-Rainbow material.

But then, who was, in South Central circa 1683? The Balkans have never been a good place to grow Children of the Rainbow. You have to live in a country as isolated as Norway to indulge that sort of fairy tale. In South Central Europe, the I-5 of invasion routes, no one cherished any such illusions.

Even among Christian powers, there were no delusions about solidarity or trust. In fact, there were three creeds fighting in Central Europe in the late 17th century: Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. The Habsburgs who ruled the German Lands and Northern Italy, loosely federated as the Holy Roman Empire, were committed to Catholic Counter-Reformation. But after the nightmare of the Thirty Years’ War, even those prognathic freaks had grudgingly signed on to religious tolerance in their devolved and devolving swarm of principalities — most of those in the North following Lutheranism, and most in the South remaining Catholic.

The Hungarian princes were the wild card, still powerful, mostly Protestant, and big Habsburg haters. You might think of Hungary as a nominally Catholic country, but that was a later development, the result of a lot of remedial Jesuit preaching and sheer Hungarian contrariness. Back in 1683, Hungarians were fiercely Protestant and hardcore Habsburg haters. Their leader, Imre Thokoly, made an alliance with the Ottomans and fought on the Turkish side in the Siege of 1683.

Switching sides like that, even across the Muslim/Christian divide, was standard practice. There was no other way for a Central European dynasty to survive. This is one part of the world that the designers of Risk, game of budding War Nerds everywhere, got exactly right. You never start your Risk empire in Europe, because it can be attacked from too many places, too many angles. That was the problem with trying to establish a dynasty in Central Europe: Too many players, too many avenues of attack.

So there was no honor among Christian powers; they couldn’t afford to be honorable. Alliances were made to be broken, without notice, as the odds changed.

The same unreliability operated among the Sultan’s allies. The Turks’ Christian allies — Hungarian, Wallachian, Moldavian — hated the infidels and had to be bribed and threatened into sending troops at all. Even fellow Muslim vassals, like the Khan of the Crimean Tatars, did as little to help the Ottomans as they could get away with.

The one exception to this rule of treachery is the Polish King, Jan Sobieski, hero of Vienna. There’s no question Jan and his “winged Polish hussars” won the battle for Christendom in 1683, but if you look carefully at Jan’s earlier career, you see some surprising flip-flops for a king who gloried in the title of “Defender of the Faith.” He had a history of changing sides when it suited his purposes. Early in his career, Jan sided with the Muslim Tatars against the Christian Russians.

Of course, you can’t blame a Pole for siding with anyone against the Russians. There’s a joke I can’t resist telling on that topic:

Polish peasant digs up an old lamp, rubs it, genie pops out—the usual scenario—and offers him a wish. Pole scratches his head, says, “I think I’d like the Chinese to invade Poland.” Genie does a double take, shrugs, and wham! The Chinese roar across Poland, burning and bayoneting everything in their path. But this weird, perverse wish preys on the genie’s mind so bad that he appears to the Pole again as the Pole is sitting in the ruins, staring at the columns of smoke where his house used to be.

Genie says, “Look, I just don’t understand that wish of yours, so I’m gonna give you another, OK? This time, please, think a little harder!” Pole scratches his head a little more, says, “Well, I think…yeah, I’d like the Chinese to invade Poland again!” Genie just stares at him in disgust, vanishes, and whoom! There’s the Chinese hordes ravaging Poland again. When the dust clears, the Genie finds the Pole again, sitting on the ground this time because the second invasion didn’t even leave any rubble to sit on. Genie goes, “You have to tell me — why? Why’d you make such a stupid masochistic wish, twice in a row?” And the Pole smiles for the first time, says, “See, for the Chinese army to invade Poland, it has to cross Russia!”

But Jan didn’t just side with Muslims — he even swore allegiance to Sweden, the ultra-Protestant power, the feared and hated nemesis of Catholic Europe since the Thirty Years’ War. He may have been cleaned up by Polish nationalist historians into a pure, noble Defender of the Faith, but in life he was a flexible guy. You had to be, if you hoped to survive long enough to pass your kingdom on to your sons. Central European rulers weren’t “hypocrites,” as we use that term. Most of them were genuinely pious, but they were even more serious about seeing their sons inherit something more than a noose. And surviving long enough to see your descendents on the throne meant being ruthless, shameless, brave or cringing, as circumstances required.

The coldest, most cynical Christian ruler of all, Louis XIV of France, was watching the clash between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires with considerable satisfaction. With the Habsburgs shifting troops to Austria to meet the Turkish threat, France attacked in the West, grabbing Alsace. After all, the Ottomans had been French allies for more than a century, and territory always meant more than religion to the Kings of France.

France could afford to look calmly at the Turkish advance, but the Ottoman threat was real, and obvious, enough to terrify most of Central Europe into unity — and Central European unity is like snow in L.A.

Finesse would've accomplished more than the threats to chop off the Holy Roman Emperor’s head, turn St. Peter’s in Rome into a mosque, and kill civilians with “the most atrocious tortures imaginable.” But finesse was not an Ottoman specialty. Terror had worked for them in the past, and they were committed to it now. The terror of a massed Ottoman advance on Vienna accomplished something close to a miracle: a stable, effective alliance between Germans, Austrians, and Poles.

Like most huge multi-national Imperial armies, the Ottoman force was slow to start and slow to move. It was mobilized in early 1682 but didn’t start marching northwest until the spring of 1683. By that time, the Turks’ Christian vassals had been writing secret letters to every prince in Christendom revealing the Ottomans’ battle plans.

It was a huge force, intended to overwhelm Vienna with sheer numbers — at least 140,000 men commanded by Kara Mustafa, an in-law of the Koprulu family, who were more or less hereditary viziers. Like many commanding officers of the latter Ottoman era, Kara Mustafa was a poor field commander, who managed to offend important, semi-autonomous subordinates like the Khan of Crimea, who repaid the slight by doing as little as possible to aid the attack on Vienna. Again, it’s that lack of finesse, born of the early Ottomans’ invincible sense of doing God’s will, that doomed so many of their later campaigns.

The Turks had good reason to be proud. They’d been on one of history’s greatest rolls, with their biggest strategic victory over the Byzantines occurring only five years after the Battle of Hastings. Their conquest of Crete had been completed in 1669. That’s a 500-year tradition of victory, an astonishing record for any empire.

But victory means wealth, and wealth weakens any warrior tradition — especially those of steppe peoples like the Turks. Steppe peoples depend on very difficult skills, especially the use of compound bows fired from horseback. Once steppe people won slaves, cities, and easy lives with those weapons, they got out of the saddle and onto the divan, which meant that the skills they’d learned as steppe warriors started to decay, and the warrior ethos with them. When that happens, an imperial people has to learn a new set of skills, schmoozing and propaganda — but the Ottomans’ schmoozing skills had not developed to compensate for their loss of ferocity. As Kara Mustafa’s force advanced, towns that had accepted surrender were massacred — a classic mistake, guaranteeing that future sieges would be fought to the death.

The Viennese knew very well that the Ottoman army was coming for their city, but with a total population of 80,000, they could only put about 15,000 soldiers on the walls. This meant that the Turkish army, which arrived outside its walls on July 14, 1683, had a 10:1 advantage over the defenders. A simple frontal attack could have worked, but Kara Mustafa decided to try siege warfare instead.

It’s an odd decision, given the Turks’ huge advantage in numbers. It wasn’t driven by compassion for the Ottoman soldiers who would have died in a direct attack; no one ever accused an Ottoman commander of being unwilling to take casualties. It may be that Kara Mustafa wanted Vienna intact, so that he could enrich himself and his Koprulu in-laws for future struggles back in Constantinople.

But remember that the theory of siege warfare vs. frontal attack was a very lively, important topic among military men in late 17th-c. Europe. In France, the dispute between the advocates of siege warfare, led by the polymath Vauban, and professional officers of the “gallant idiot” school, led to disasters like the Battle of Turin in 1706, in which the French commander Marechal de la Feulliade, sacrificed thousands of their men to prove that their head-first methods were superior to Vauban’s weak-kneed bloodless siege warfare.

In Turin, siege warfare would have worked and frontal assault did not; in Vienna 1683, a frontal assault probably would have overwhelmed the tiny Austrian garrison, and siege warfare failed. That’s the trouble with military theory; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and most of the time, commanders play along with their natural tendencies, cautious or headstrong, then find a quote from the Romans to justify it.

Kara Mustafa was one of Nature’s conservatives. He chose to entrench his huge army around the walls of Vienna and start digging trenches, always closer, so that his sappers could burrow under vulnerable strong points and set off a few dozen barrels of powder. This “subterranean warfare” was one of the nastiest, most effective ways of using gunpowder — much more effective at bringing down city walls than firing cannon at them all day. It was a nightmare for the men assigned to tunnel duty — digging tunnels that could bury you at any moment, listening for enemy sappers, and rolling barrels of black powder along torch-lit passages, setting off counter-mines before they could blow theirs. The only entertainment came when two opposing parties of sappers dug right into each other, leading to quick, rat-like fights to the death with knives, shovels, teeth — whatever was handy.

The Ottomans had 5,000 trained sappers chewing away under the walls of Vienna, a force one-third as large as the entire Austrian garrison. But though the Turkish sappers did manage to blow up several bastions, the defenders built new walls inside the breaches, and the Ottomans failed to make the big breakthrough they needed.

And time was running out. The Polish/German relief force was on the move at last, after quarreling in the classic European-allied manner about money and command structure. Jan Sobieski, the Polish King, got overall command thanks to his record of defeating Ottoman armies, and an unusually sensible deal was reached on finance: The Holy Roman Empire would pay all soldiers on its territory, the Poles would pay their men until they crossed into the Empire. As the relief force moved south toward Vienna, its officers coalesced — another miracle, an unheard-of success for this sort of multi-ethnic force — into an efficient, simple chain of command.

The Turkish force had another enemy to deal with, one that even Homer feared: the infectious, waterborne diseases that laid low every army that ever tried to spend the summer in shit-stinking, crowded camps outside an enemy city. Most war poetry describes the smell of blood, but the smell of a camp, especially in hot weather, was shit, not blood — though as dysentery spread, the two smells mixed in something called “the bloody flux,” or bloody diarrhea. Ottoman soldiers were dying in the disgusting trenches, and the city seemed no closer to falling than ever.

Actually, life inside the walls was fairly grim. Food was so scarce that sentries were fainting on duty. The Austrian commander, Count von Stahremberg, responded with the sort of compassion one expects from an Austrian commander; he made fainting on duty a capital offense. Better than caffeine pills any day.

This was the moment a little flexibility toward conquered cities would have served the Ottomans very well. If the Viennese had had any real hope of being spared, they might have considered surrender. But there was no point in surrender when you were doomed anyway. Death on the walls was preferable to the slow, inventive methods for which the Ottomans were famous.

Kara Mustafa had already collected 30,000 civilian hostages from the countryside around Vienna, to be used as bargaining chips or killed in the most demoralizing manner possible, or sold into slavery in the event of an Ottoman victory. The sight of the hostages was probably not much of an incentive for the Viennese to consider surrender, either. All in all, their best choice was to hold out as long as there were rats, cats or other wildlife to grill among the ruins of the town, while waiting for the relief expedition.

Many towns have waited for a relief expedition, only to find out they dreamed it, or it was defeated on the way, diverted for political purposes, or invented as a joke by the besiegers. Most of the time, it’s a sucker’s proposition. But not this time. The German force defeated Thokoly’s Hungarians, who had been assigned the blocking position by Kara Mustafa. The main relief force now had an open road to Vienna. They arrived before dawn on September 12, 1683, and lit bonfires to inspire the Viennese and demoralize the siege force.

Kara Mustafa now had two decent options: Either turn and fight the relief force in the open, or order an all-out attack on the city in the hope of taking it before the relief force could act. He did neither. His sappers had told him they were ready to detonate their biggest charge yet under the city walls, and his subordinates were convinced they could crush the Poles on open ground. So he did the one thing no sane commander would do: He ordered simultaneous attacks on the city and against the relief force. He had the numbers on his side, even after the summer’s attrition; the relief force totaled 70,000, roughly half the Ottoman force. But by dividing that force, he squandered his advantage. Worse yet, his best troops were still facing the walls of Vienna, leaving inferior troops to deal with the fresh, heavily armored heavy cavalry massed on the hills.

And there was one more drain on Ottoman manpower: the execution of those 30,000 Austrian peasants. Even while facing a two-front battle for his army’s survival, Kara Mustafa stayed true to form as an Ottoman commander by ordering a significant body of his available soldiery to the butchering of every one of those screaming women and children. No, the Ottomans were not — no matter what your Poli Sci prof told you — proto-Rainbow Children. They weren’t even smart about their brutality, because that was a very stupid waste of armed men at a critical time.

What followed was the biggest cavalry charge in history — 20,000 lancers sweeping down onto a huge but tired, confused, badly led Ottoman siege force. This was Poland’s finest hour, and I’m more than willing to give their “winged hussars” the beery toast they deserve. If you grew up around Poles, you’ve probably seen a few of the two zillion patriotic paintings of the Polish hussars riding to Vienna’s rescue. Their “wings” were two wooden frames attached to the back of their cuirasses, with feathers tied to the frames so that what you saw, as a terrified enemy infantryman, was a thundering herd of Slavic angel/centaurs bearing down on you, with lance-heads bouncing roughly at the level of your big, scared eyes.

Most infantry didn’t stick around for a closer look. The Ottomans did, but without leadership, worn out after two months in their stinking tents, they had no heart to deal with an apparition like that. They broke and fled.

The Viennese garrison, seeing the rout, scrambled out from what was left of the walls and attacked Kara Mustafa’s inner force. It’s amazing what a change of morale can do, even with troops who haven’t had anything but rodent-schnitzel in a month. The Ottoman elite, janissaries and sipahi had no choice but to retreat.

They managed to protect Kara Mustafa, and brought him home to Belgrade to explain what had gone so wrong. Apparently it wasn’t a particularly effective speech (even though Mustafa had had almost three months to rehearse it), because on Christmas Day, 1683, he was executed in Belgrade. On the bright side, Mustafa was granted the kind of execution reserved for high-level officials: being strangled by a silk rope, each end pulled by several janissaries. Kind of like tug-of-war with a head in the middle. History doesn’t tell us whether he was grateful for the honor (“Mmmm, soft!”) though given the Turkish court’s creepy inventiveness with methods of capital punishment, he should have been glad he got off so easy.

Among the victors, there was a moment of Polish/Austrian friendship, which lasted about as long as it takes to microwave a kolbasa. Poland’s brief era of glory ended with the War of the Polish Succession in 1733 — a war so confused, so diffuse, so intricate and cynical, that it makes the Lebanese Civil War seem as straightforward as Gettysburg.

It left Poland weaker and more corrupt, more vulnerable to the North-German and Russian powers that were pressing in on it from both sides. A little over a century after its moment of glory outside Vienna, the Kingdom of Poland vanished, divvied up as a serf state by the Prussian upstarts and the hated Muscovites.

Austria, the Habsburgs’ flagship principality, began decaying almost as soon as the Turkish armies left, devolving into the grotesque Austro-Hungarian Empire which, as Hemingway said, was created to give victories to Napoleon.

The only consolation for sentimental Central Europeans was that the Ottomans were decaying even faster than the Poles or Austrians, well on their way to status as the “sick man of Europe,” cynically propped up against the Russians by the French and British. The real power was moving to the edges of Europe — the British Empire in the West, Russia in the east — isolated, impregnable empires, just like the Risk board.

Now all that remains of the brief glory of September 12, 1683 are cheesy attempts by reactionary Europeans to connect their midget-fascism to what happened outside Vienna that day. Breivik is typical of the breed — childless weirdos lamenting the decline of the European birthrate, would-be crusaders whining that they’re not given the latest Playstation games in their cushy prison cells. It’s a long way since 1683, and downhill all the way.