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Defense and Foreign Affairs Daily

March , 2004

Essential Reading

New Study of Napoleon Highlights Ramifications for the 21st Century


Napoleon, by Paul Johnson. London, 2003: Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books Ltd. Our copy: Paperback. ISBN: 184212650-4. 208pp.

By Dr Assad Homayoun, Senior Research Fellow, ISSA. Former French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte — Napoleon I — in exile on Elba, blaming Talleyrand and Fouche for his predicament, said: “If I had hanged Talleyrand and Fouche, I would have been still today on the throne.” When the news reached Talleyrand, he said: “Napoleon, instead of hanging me, should have listened to me.”

Countless books and papers have been written about Napoleon, who was once a revolutionary, associated with Jacobin movement, political activist, military tactician and strategist and, penultimately, Emperor of France, before his death in exile on St. Helena. He fought 60 wars and dominated the political and military scene of Europe for two decades. He was one of the world’s greatest military leaders. He used to say: “Europe produced very outstanding military leaders. They mostly at the same time see many things, whereas I only see one thing, the masses of enemy forces which I try to destroy.” He was indeed a military genius whose military campaigns and politics had a lasting impact on European politics.

British historian Paul Johnson, in his interesting book and important new analysis of Napoleon, explains that although he was a courageous and reckless military genius, he was not successful as an empire builder and his empire did not last long. For example, says Johnson, the sale of Louisiana was Napoleon’s greatest political failure of imagination, for which France received only $15-million, or four cents an acre. Had Napoleon used France’s legitimate right to its American territory to create an enormous dominion across the Atlantic, instead of trying to carve out an illegitimate empire in Europe, he would have enriched France instead of impoverishing her.

Napoleon always thought thing in the short-term. He engaged himself in many futile battles and cost the lives of many Frenchmen in order to establish an unnatural empire. He regarded himself as his own foreign minister and regarded his able and cunning Foreign Minister, Talleyrand — who understood much better European politics — as a servant. Napoleon wanted to change the balance of power in Europe whereas Talleyrand was rightly in favor of a balance of power and stability of Europe.

Napoleon had many victories and  defeats. His great victories became ephemeral. He became master of the Continent, but did not succeed defeating Britain. His plan to strike at Britain through India led to his expedition of Egypt but finally he lost at Aboukir. One of his mistakes was to forget the nationalist sentiment of European nations like Spain and Austria, or Russia, which he invaded.

After the great Moscow fire, set by the departing Russians as his forces occupied the city, he was forced to retreat and allowed his Grand Armée to be annihilated. He was to some extent a destroyer more than a builder. But no matter what happened to his empire, he revolutionized the art of war, and his wars, ideas, military philosophy use of firepower and his personality have been and still are analyzed, discussed, imitated. They have had a great and ongoing impact in European and world history.

Napoleon’s tactics and strategies were so important that German military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz based his philosophy, On War, on Napoleon’s rules of wars and on his strategies. As Anatol Rapoport, in his introduction to Clausewitz’s On War, said: “Napoleon taught that universal currency of politics is power, and power resides in ability to inflict physical destruction. Clausewitz embodied this lesson in unifying a philosophy of politics with philosophy of war. What Napoleon expressed in cannonades and aphorism, Clausewitz presented as system of thought by ponderous metaphysical speculations.”

Prof. Johnson’s book is a very valuable new look at a Corsican military genius who introduced a great change and indeed revolution in art and science of war. Johnson discusses the weak and strong points of Bonaparte and has opened new window to better understanding of this great warrior of history. I believe study of this book will be very useful for students of war and politics.    










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