I am coming off a four-day weekend, and I had decided I needed to get my mind off things, so my project was to read a book about a period of history I know very little about, a distraction from this period of history that is so thoroughly fucked up. I’ve missed out on the early 19th century, just a little gap in my education, so I picked up this free book via Kindle Unlimited, Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life, by Alan Schom.
As a book, it was OK: it tended to plod a bit, as it was a condensed biography that nevertheless tried to cram in as many details as it could, but I learned a fair bit. It didn’t take my mind off the current situation, though, because the early 19th century may have been even more fucked up than the early 21st.
I have a complaint, though. The author keeps telling me Napoleon is brilliant, a genius, a general impression I had from my pop culture understanding of the Great Man: that he was a great general. Reading what he actually did, though, it’s obvious he was a narcissistic psychopath who was a terrible general. He basically took the great wealth and manpower of France and threw it wastefully at grandiose campaigns that allowed him to loot entire nations, at the cost of great loss of life.
To give him his due, though, he was aggressive and would fight to the last man: he won battles because his opponents would hesitate and back off when they lost tens of thousands of men, while Napoleon would just hurl another corps into the fray, and afterwards, write back to Paris and order another levy of 80,000 men.
Often, that wasn’t enough. His Egyptian campaign was logistically incompetent and a total failure. Do I need to even mention his ill-fated Russian campaign?
That was a moment for me. I’m reading this book, I’d gotten up to 1811, and his Spanish adventure was floundering, the French people were rioting, Austria was mobilizing, and I suddenly realized that I did know a bit about Napoleonic history — wasn’t there going to be a huge catastrophe at the walls of Moscow in 1812? I heard a symphony about that. There was no real prelude to those events, one month he’s flailing about in his fracturing and fractious empire, and the next he’s marching off to frolic in the Russian winter wonderland. It was insane.
Also appalling: he lost, was banished to the island of Elba, and then…he came back, and the enthusiastic French people, whose young men he’d slaughtered in futile, fatal wars, elevated him again in patriotic fervor, and sent him off to Brussels with another army. The masses promoting a lying boob against their own self-interest is not a novel behavior, I guess. End result: 25,000 Frenchman rotting in a field near Waterloo.
What I learned is that the Great Leaders of nations can easily be greedy, self-serving monsters who will sacrifice the lives of their supporters for their own gain, and there will always be historians who look at the body count and conclude that they must be a genius. My cynicism has risen again.
But it’s not all negative news. I also learned how to deal with petty tyrants: banish them to a small island in the south Atlantic (far enough away that he’s not going to be able to row back), and give them a nice house and a small party of their sycophantic supporters and let them cheat at cards (Napoleon was notorious for cheating disgracefully at games of chance, which says a lot about his character) together. Give them five years to grate on each other’s nerves, and also, for one or more of the party to slowly poison the unpleasant ex-dictator. It was a little pocket of hell on Earth. The British dealt with him generously, and it was the most unkind torture they could have performed.
At least I got a little pleasure from fantasizing about the banishment party I’d ship my least favorite modern monsters to. If I were to exile Donald Trump, for instance, who would I send to accompany him? His own children, for sure, and Rudy Giuliani, and maybe Sydney Powell and a few Fox News hosts. It’s easy to imagine a true hell-hole made up of his own most persistent supporters.