During the Crusades of the Middle Ages, a typical Frankish knight wore “a coat of chain mail or scale armour, [a] shield and a helmet,” Piers Mitchell tells us in his book on warfare and medicine during the period. The chain mail, a mesh formed with interlinked metal rings, offered protection, but only to a point: It “could still be penetrated by lance, cross-bow bolt and arrow and even cut with a heavy blow from a good sword.” It proved feebler against the mace and, I imagine, was of little use against the siege weapons of the day, which could “propel rocks, Greek fire, boiling oil and water and, on occasion, amputated body parts.”
Chain mail, of course, has gone the way of the mace and Greek fire, which is why it’s surprising to see the armor make a comeback in a medal that the U.S. Defense Department unveiled on Wednesday to recognize soldiers for their service in Iraq or Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led military operation against the Islamic State. The medal features a mail-cloaked hand clutching a sword—a curious image for a campaign that largely consists of air strikes and support for local ground forces.
More importantly, it’s surprising because ISIS, in its propaganda, often depicts the Western participants in that campaign as modern-day Christian Crusaders invading the Middle East once again. In claiming responsibility for the recent bombings in Brussels, for example, ISIS asserted that it was targeting “Crusader Belgium, which did not stop targeting Islam and its people.”