Boris Johnson’s master cerebrovascular incident.
Coming back to the comparison between sometimes-thought-of-as-great Napoléon and never-could-ever-be-great Donald we can see one huge similarity. Both men were/are terminally self-deluding, especially when under stress.
Trump in his mismanagement of Covid-19 uttered lie after lie. Equally Napoléon during his extraordinarily ill-fated Russia campaign of 1812 misplaced the truth whenever he opened his mouth abroad or wrote a letter back home.
From Sainte-Hélène Napoléon’s take on his failure in Russia was this: … “the defeat was not the result of the ‘efforts of the Russians’ but rather [due to] ‘complete accidents’ … ‘a capital burned to the ground by foreign parties before the eyes of its inhabitants’ … ‘a freezing winter the sudden arrival and intensity of which was nothing less than phenomenal’ and finally ‘false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity’.
Napoléon almost ascribed one weakness, one fault to himself: ‘I did not wish for this famous war, this audacious undertaking. I had no urge to fight. Nor did Alexander, yet once we were face to face, circumstance drove us against each other. Fate did the rest.’
Napoléon’s Russia-campaign preparations began in 1811. Writing to his brother Jerome on 27 January 1812, the great self-deceiver said: “I have had to assemble my armies, train them, and reconstitute my equipment. These preparations have taken a year.”
Look at the map. Napoléon crossed a huge section of Europe with over 420,000 armed soldiers in a moveable city of 690,000 – and yet he says he had no urge to fight. Then why not go with his staff to speak with Alexander, leaving the army home?
Once inside the Russian Empire, Napoléon rode his men around in the first weeks of the big campaign desperately seeking the Russians – to have what? A chat, a picnic perhaps?
The truth is Napoléon was bullying Russia with his army, trying to force a decisive battle, hoping for an easy victory. Napoléon expected (in his self-delusion) an early Russian surrender.
To say he did not intend to fight shows that Napoléon was as much a pathological liar as Trump, or that his brain was not working well. My central thesis. By Sainte-Hélène at least but most-probably well before that, Napoléon was mentally ill. As self-deluded as Donald Trump. In fact, self-delusion is a core element in both men’s mental illnesses.
We have heard and unfortunately digested Trump’s tweets, too many in ALL CAPS, but let’s now look at some 1812 Napoléonic gems written into letters and collected by archivists.
From his many letters, early-on Napoléon exuded supreme confidence. He was so confident of victory, completely underestimating both Russian military capabilities and troop strengths. At Borodino he emphasised Russian losses, and downplayed, even ignored his own. Writing to Marie-Louise 8 September, he says that Russian “losses could be estimated at 30,000 men”, without saying anything of his own troop-losses. Then, later in a letter to Maret, he writes with glee, saying: “Russian losses at the Moskova are huge. It is the most beautiful battlefield I have seen thus far: there are 2,000 French and 12,000 Russian, and that is no exaggeration” (1 to 6 ratio). These days those losses are calculated as 25,000 to 28,000 men for the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 for the Russians.
It is clear that the loss ratio (1 to 2 almost) accrued to Napoléon’s army makes Borodino the bloodiest battle fought by the French and allies. Yet Napoléon kept to his resolute “self-deluding-optimism” (remind you of anyone?)
Napoléon was slow in understanding that the war for the Russians was a fight to the death, which meant the Russian people, sovereign and army, were ready to do whatever they had to do to rid themselves of the intruders. Napoléon couldn’t comprehend that the Russians – military and civilian – were prepared go to any end, commit any act, to stop the French army.
Napoléon seemed unprepared for this, expressing bewilderment upon hearing that German-language pamphlets had been distributed by the Russians, urging German members “of the Grande Armée to desert.”
Napoléon abandoned attempts to encourage Russian serfs to rebel against Russian landowners – writing to Eugene on 5 August: “tell [me] what sort of decree or proclamation we could make to incite revolt amongst the serfs of Russia and rally them to our cause”. This project was quickly dropped by Napoléon “in the face of a virulent popular patriotism.”
Not to comprehend even part of this sentiment underlines, either the poor intelligence he was getting, though more it indicates the level of Napoléon’s self-delusion.
The sacrifice the Russians made in burning Moscow, a city Napoléon described in a letter to Marie-Lousie as: “500 palaces as beautiful as the Elysée Napoléon, furnished luxuriously à la française, several imperial palaces, barracks, [and] magnificent hospitals”.
The burning of Moscow shocked Napoléon so much he wrote to Alexander asking how the tsar, “with all his principles, heart and integrity, could have authorised such excess unworthy of a great sovereign and a great nation”.
For Napoléon, this was the “turning point in the campaign.” Yet, any military leader worth his medals would have realised that Smolensk and Borodino combined spelt defeat IN CAPITALS for the Grande Armée – the invading force was now already outnumbered, poorly supplied, and very, very far from home.
Coupled to this, Russian support and love for their tsar was utterly unmoveable. And all Napoléon really achieved was to make this an even more unshakeable truth.
Napoléon’s letters also show an incomprehension of the state of his own army – the lack of clothing, provisions. Disaster was near, but not until 18 November, writing Maret four weeks after exiting Moscow, did Napoléon admit ‘in explicit and almost naive terms the structural difficulties he faced, in contrast to an enemy in total harmony with its surroundings:
“Since the last letter I sent you, our situation has worsened. Freezing conditions and a biting cold of 16 degrees [below zero on the Réaumur scale, about minus 20° C] have killed nearly all our horses, almost 30,000 of them. We have been forced to burn more than 300 artillery pieces and an immense number of transports. […] A few days of rest, some good food and above all horse and artillery equipment will set us right. But the enemy has over us experience of moving in icy conditions, something that gives him an immense advantage in winter. As we struggle to get a transport or artillery piece over the smallest defile without losing 12 or 15 horses and 12 to 15 hours, they – with their skates and specially equipped teams – move them as if there were no ice at all.”
The crossing of his desperate army at Bérézina (done despite Napoléon, not because of him), the letters to Maret reveal a mind ‘getting the idea’ that the situation was catastrophic – just before he deserted his men and rode off to Paris, in fact.
29 November, Napoléon wrote that he was “cut off from everything: It has been fifteen days since I last received any news or any dispatch, and I am in the dark on everything”. Adding: “The army is large but terribly strung out,” before instructing Maret to assemble plenty of provisions in Vilnius. “Without them,” he warned, “there is no horror that this undisciplined and unruly mob will not visit upon the city.”
30 November, he wrote: 40,000 soldiers “driven, by fatigue, cold and want of food [were] roaming as vagabonds and looters.” He ordered: “100,000 rations of bread, without which – he noted ominously – anarchy and violence would reign in Vilnius.”
4 December Napoléon wrote Maret before crossing the Niemen, admitting that: “The army, exhausted and worn out by the miseries it has experienced, is at the brink. It is capable of no more, not even if it were asked to defend Paris.”
Yet riding with Caulaincourt in a sleigh to Paris Napoléon was soon laughing uproariously. Back in Paris, 19 December “reassured by the country’s morale, the French emperor once more turned his mind to grandiose plans and the raising of new troops. On the day of his arrival, he wrote to Murat:
“I have arrived in Paris. I was extremely satisfied with the Nation’s resolve. They are prepared to make any sort of sacrifice, and I shall be tireless in my work to reorganise the means [at my disposal]. I already have an army of 40,000 men in Berlin and on the Oder.”
That’s Napoléonic self-delusion for you.
“We maintain … that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means ….We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’ because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.”
Carl von Clausewitz—On War
Von Clausewitz sounds almost reasonable. A man with a pipe in a lounge chair saying something sensible about politics transforming suddenly into war. Just as normal as the molecules of heated water suddenly boiling and turning into gas vapour.
Only war isn’t reasonable because war has never truly ever been reasonable. It is a kind of madness—at best an organised form of human madness.
Let me be blunt: War is the most frightening grotesque idea humans have ever conceived. Ask those who are unwilling participants first-up—not the generals and staff officers some distance away from the nitty gritty frontline.
There are of course ways and methods of rationalising reasons for war and there is at least one good defence. Self-defence. People, nations have a right even a duty to defend themselves. Though then the reasons collide and soon everyone is staggering around in a fog of war. Discretion is the better part of valour, only not always.
My earliest memory of human madness came from my mother—who in recounting to me a story her father had told her occupied my mind for many sleepless moments at night.
My grandfather’s arm was permanently disabled by a dum-dum bullet fired by a sniper in World War 1. He returned home to become the manager of a returned serviceman’s club. In his spare time he visited men who were inmates at the city’s main mental hospital (stricken, wounded returned servicemen I believe, but I can’t be sure). The wounded helping the wounded at the scary place, the place on the hill, we kids whispered—tales of the scary-place told and retold in the street.
A man there said to my grandfather. ‘I am as sane as you. I don’t know why I am here.’ (I am guessing now but my grandfather’s fault here is that he was humouring the poor man— just wishing the man well was perhaps mistakable for a form of condescension.) Glad he could help-out at least a little, my grandfather turned to leave—and for his well-meant efforts and concern for the man’s welfare he was pushed down some asylum stairs.
How does anyone defend him or herself when a moment of madness appears in one form or another? How do we analyse madness? Madness as a word is part folklore, part frightening comic tale children yell at each other in backyards. Madness has several meanings and definitions in medicine. So it’s probably wrong to call Napoléon’s invasion of Russia an act of madness—without qualification—without consulting an expert. I give ground on that. Many no doubt think that Napoléon’s attack on Russia in 1812 was only a miscalculation. Just that. Napoléon Bonaparte drags 690,000 north across Europe to invade another sovereign country and he made a military miscalculation.
Napoléon said he was on a noble military-mission to free serfs and turn barbaric Russia into a modern nation state (get Russia back inside his continental system more like it). None of which he did, I add. He thought he was there to free Russians serfs—apparently—until he gave up his moral mission, and was driven out of Russia. So, give him half a mark out of ten for good intentions. Still I’ll bet the smart money is on: Napoléon was out of his head.
At best he needed his head read, but no-one thought to do it back then. Napoléon marched 690,000 north into Russia and exited five or so months later with less than 20,000 half-dead combatants and no-one thought to say: Nappy, you need to see a psychiatrist.
Napoléon went on to lose the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, losing another army. And let’s not go into the madness of how that all ended, a corporal panicking and blowing up a bridge, trapping thousands of French soldiers. Equally let’s not return to the mess that was Waterloo. They were all the actions of a sane man making difficult military calculations.
The Russians defended themselves effectively against Napoléon. Russia’s strategy of retreat worked exceptionally well, even if everyone in the Russian command didn’t think so at the time.
“Tell me for God’s sake,” Prince Bagration said, “what will our Russia—our mother—say seeing that we are so frightened … that we are giving up such a good and zealous Fatherland to such rabble and instilling hatred and disgrace in every subject? Why are we so cowardly, and who are we afraid of? It is not my fault that the minister is irresolute, cowardly, muddle-headed, temporizing, and has every bad quality. The whole army is completely in tears and scolds him to death …”
Discretion is the better part of valour. Barclay de Tolly’s strategies as the Russian army chief lacked valour—at least in the mind of General Bagration.
Important aside: The problem here is I am discussing the merits and demerits of Napoléon’s Russia campaign as if it is proper to elevate his mission—which I freely admit I think was a mad as anything I have ever read about—to, in effect, take Napoléon’s madness and turn it into a subject worthy of sane inquiry. When, to me, it is and was no better than a pointless sudden explosive street fight, all started for no reason. Still, to show I am reasonable, that I’m willing to consider the other side—I’ll state this: some think the art of militarism is born from the inner necessity of a soldier in an enigmatic mystical way through which it acquires an autonomous life which becomes an independent entity animated by a spiritual breath. Okay I said it. Guess what, I think it’s MADNESS.
What was Napoléon’s motive for the invasion? He didn’t really know—wasn’t sure what he could achieve—except start a fight as soon as he got inside Russia. Yes, he wanted to show Tsar Alexander who was boss of Europe. Alexander had broken the terms of the unfairly drawn-up Tilsit Treaty and Napoléon was angry about that.
Napoléon was only 43 during the Russian campaign of 1812, so dementia is not quite yet a useful excuse. His performance was less-effective than others of his age. Some very pressing physical ailments, as I argue in the last instalment hampered him—Napoléon had PTSD.
Yet, I think it perhaps more about the ‘mentalness’ of his intentions, not just his physical condition. His objectives were mental.
By the time he left Smolensk, chasing the Russians—heading for Moscow—his forces were already reduced by skirmishes, battles, desertion, starvation, thirst, disease, to 160,000, give or take a few ten thousand men and horses and wagons.
Marching/riding after the Russians, Napoléon also found himself facing a new chief of the Russian army. Barclay had been removed by Alexander.
Recently back from a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the south, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov rode to meet the Russian army on 29 August. Kutuzov, considered a Russian’s Russian, with battle credentials, a survivor or two head wounds, satisfied the Russian officers who couldn’t take another retreat-filled day under Barclay. Napoléon was happy with Kutuzov’s appearance. He had beaten him at Austerlitz.
At the age of 67 Kutuzov was at the end of his career. Fitness for duty concerning physical and mental condition was evening-up the command strengths between the two sides.
Moscow gave Napoléon sleepless nights and countless nightmares. Moscou, la capitale asiatique de ce grand empire, la ville sacrée des peuples d’Alexandre, Moscou avec ses innombrables églises en forme de pagodes chinoises!
Like no other challenge in his life Napoléon wanted to enter Moscow as its conqueror. But did his Grande Armée have enough fight left? Could Napoléon ride triumphantly through Moscow’s gates and control Russia’s empire? Would Alexander give up his crown to Napoléon Bonaparte? Would Russians accept Napoléon as their ruler? Could he open up the gateway to Asia? Was he as great as Alexander of Macedonia?
At the end of the road Napoléon was on, lay the City of Truth. On he went, chasing a fate-defining military-engagement.
Let’s look at the Napoléonic meltdown, chart his decline into intermittent mental illness.
Napoléon marched a city of 690,000 into Russia, of which 420,000 were combatants, 286,000 under his direct control. Running counter to his already proven Napoléonic strategy in war – stay small and compact and flexible, in order to be able to go and strike anywhere anytime – Napoléon marched a huge invasion force of soldiers, supports, wives and others northward, with supply-support not needed times three, but times ten.
An army that gets too far in front of its supply support lines particularly in unknown enemy territory is in danger. The health and well-being of the marching troops very early became critical factors for Napoléon.
Travelling through a sweltering European summer of 1812 general hygiene soon became an issue for the troops. Those who were wined and dined and cheered on in places such as Germany became very quickly thirsty, hungry, lice-carrying troops in the Duchy of Warsaw, typhus appearing and spreading quickly among them.
By the time the invasion force crossed over the Nieman into Russia, Napoléon’s troops were already badly afflicted. Many of his men were dying or already dead. Was this fact communicated to Napoléon? Was desertion which was also a significant factor communicated to him? Was the man on the white horse receiving and digesting the bad news?
Even without typhus, thirst, hunger and general fatigue took a toll on his army. When Napoléon caught up with the Russians at Smolensk, what once was a huge numerical advantage for the French leader 4 to 1 at the outset of the campaign, was now half that.
At Smolensk the spiritual sister-city of Moscow for Russians, a city filled with religious icons and fiercely patriotic Russians, Napoléon saw an opportunity to set the tone of his invasion. He had been seeking an early victory – something the Russians kept trying to deny him.
Setting up for battle Napoléon seemed incapable of working out a winning strategy, so much so the Prussian military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, working for the Russians, later wrote that Napoléon failed tactically from that first encounter with the Russian army. Clausewitz was astounded that Napoléon mounted a full-frontal attack from the west, arguing he should have surrounded and secured the city before attempting any moves.
This failure of tactics seems to signal a decline in Napoléon’s military capacities, a trend which began manifesting itself more frequently after Smolensk.
In fighting man-to-man in the streets against very determined Russians, including members of the priesthood, Napoléon’s troops suffered major casualties, created in part because the Russian General Pyotr Bagration kept feeding in fresh Russian reinforcements through the city’s uncontrolled back door.
The battle for Smolensk amounted to a technical victory for the French, but in fact was Napoléon’s first failure in the Russian campaign.
Casualties although high on both sides, the Russians wisely continued retreating under the command of the German Scot Barclay de Tolly. Whether Barclay or his high-command decided the strategy, or fell into it, the defeat of Napoléon was underway.
Troop numbers were now critical for Napoléon, not only because of Smolensk. Even though he didn’t know what the cause was, Napoléon’s surgeon, and medic in charge of the army, was seeing more and more soldiers infected by a virulent disease, and witnessed many die. Napoléon’s aide-de camp, Marquis de Caulaincourt, also noted the dying. It is unimaginable that Napoléon would have been unaware of this. It is also clear that he didn’t surround Smolensk because he knew he didn’t have enough troops.
So why did Napoléon chase the Russians? He had told Metternich months earlier that he planned to build a base at Smolensk, supply it and have his troops rest through the winter, before attacking Russia properly in the following spring. Instead he changed his plans.
Leaving a troop contingent to make a base and hold the city, he and his men rode after the Russians, even though the French leader’s army was fatigued, disease-routed and supplies-stretched.
Napoléon always craved a morale-boosting battle early to rouse his army, more than he wanted a rested army. But when Maréchal Junot disobeyed his orders and failed to attack the retreating Russian’s rear, the French leader’s plans began falling apart. Still he rode on.
So what is the point of recounting all this? Napoléon’s judgment was failing him, along with his tactics. Was he no longer able to endure such an arduous campaign? Were his problems deeper than age? Was his mind actually in the process of disintegrating?
The United States is as good as done with Trump (there’s a few tantrums to come) and we are now just months away from the bicentennial anniversary of the death of Napoléon.
Two men in politics with very different histories and characters though both suffered from comparable delusional fantasies.
Mental illness is at the centre of both men’s failure: Trump’s sociopathy; Napoléon’s shell shock/PTSD.
Donnie’s mismanagement of COVID-19 in 2020 is enough to condemn him, and the 1812 Russian campaign is enough to condemn Napoléon.
With Trump: let’s forget the Mexican wall, the ruined lives of children, the destruction of America’s international standing, the cosying-up to dictators by a neophyte with only cash on his mind, the obtaining and maintenance of loans for himself and others in his circle, all against the Emoluments clause rules deftly written into the American Constitution – even without all that, Donnie’s mishandling of Covid-19 does it for him. All by itself.
Bonaparte’s mismanagement of the Typhus epidemic in his army speaks eloquently for his abilities at the end of his career. Forget his runaway from Egypt, his failure at Smolensk, or Borodino, or his empty negotiations with Alexander, or his cowardice at Maloyaroslavets, leading to the disastrous retreat that killed hundreds of thousands. Let’s even forget his floundering and desertion of his army at Bérézina (again he left his army) – Nappy’s mishandling of Typhus does it for him. All by itself.
Both men rose improvisationally, powered by others. Both were chancers, inveterate risk takers, who got noticed by those who know how to and can use people like them. Napoléon as an artillery commander made himself seem big in opportune moments, making himself seem a better soldier than he really was. The powerful saw an opportunity.
Donald began as a real estate impresario who went bankrupt over and over reinventing himself through copious lying and fraud, the powerful seeing an opportunity and throwing an electoral dice into his lap.
Both Nappy and Donny proved to be narcissistic self-deluding conmen, mister damn-lucky fraudster meets criminal. Donald constructing phoney real estate projects – mafia-style. Napoléon running around redrawing the boundaries in Europe – mafia style.
So where does mental illness come in and how did it adulterate their lofty fates?
By Borodino Nappy’s brain was shot to pieces. Hammered every second by the battering-sonics of seven muskets and three cannon, a cowering PTSD shell-shocked Nappy had a severe urinary tract infection. He sat, a shadow of himself, on a dinner-table chair (probably pissing himself), unable to dream up a simple way of winning, even though his maréchaux kept offering-up ideas. Napoléon Bonaparte’s military dreams and often over-stated genius had shrivelled to nothing before the disaster of Borodino rolled-out in a field. A field like any other, a field of no strategic importance, as Tolstoy said.
With the ghost of Pyrrhus on his shoulder, the Russians retreating, Nappy deluded himself in to occupying Moscow for several depressing weeks. As he sat watching his troops strip, ransack and abuse the sacred cradle of Russian history, he kept on pretending he was negotiating with Tsar Alexander, the Russian monarch who didn’t even bother to answer his letters.
Spying first snowflakes, Nappy hastily left Moscow, a hollow, frightened man who then was spooked by Cossacks at Maloyaroslavets rushing out at him from a forest. Nappy and his commanders were out reconnoitering his next-round of pretend plans, a shaken Nappy saved only by the bravery of his Imperial Guard.
Back in his tent, he sat silent and blinking as a vehement Murat, the bravest of his maréchaux, logically outlined his arguments for the only solution left: join battle with Kutuzov south at Kaluga. And if successful, the French would have food on that open well-provisioned road west.
Nappy sighed and shifted-around and made excuses, then ordered his troops back north and west back along the food-stripped beaten old Moscow Smolensk road, taking his men by the still shocking death scene of Borodino, a field which weeks after battle lay covered in rotting human remains. It was enough to stun his most-hardened troops. Nappy drove his army west into the freezing Russian winter, unprepared, food-less, to certain death.
For Bankrupt Donnie’s part, living the life of politicians in his never-ending ‘let me show you how I cheat at golf’ picnic, Donnie threw money at the billionaire-class and waited for re-election – his belly growing sumptuously on junk-food. Only a pandemic stepped on to the path out in front and gave him history’s answer to wannabe-dictators like him.
After his catastrophic handling of Covid-19, facing rejection by the people in the 2020 election – which they delivered resoundingly – will Donald now continue on abusing the office he still unfortunately sits in? Will he try to save his skin, skirt justice, stay somehow out of jail? Nappy and Donny are good at getting away.
Napoléon predicted his end in 1805, just after winning Austerlitz, saying: ‘I have five good years left.’ Donald looks as if he would have said something similar in 2016: ‘I have four years. Let’s fake it.’ Both Nappy and Donny are famous for their ‘tells’. Both men knew all along what they were doing.
Donald’s sociopathy is a muck centre others call their heart. Napoléon’s PTSD was a malignant prostate pounder that ruined his head. Both knew enough to know they were infecting and killing wantonly with their respective couldn’t care-less ambitions.
Mental illness is the connecting factor of these two self-aggrandisers at two ends of history, chancers who mired their respective countries in a swamp of narcissistic self-delusion. Nappy in his bicorne, Donnie in his hair hat.
|The Paper||Ron Howard|
|Delicatessen||Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro|
Two hundred and eight years ago today – on 26 October 1812 – Napoléon fell-into what is probably the worst decision he dreamed-up in his ill-fated Russian invasion (and for that honour there were many competing candidates in his grotesquely failing campaign.)
Fearing for his life, after a sudden skirmish with a band of Cossacks the day before, the once admired man of military action, the martial move-maker par excellence, under a cloak of pragmatism made what can only be described as a decision bordering on cowardice.
Ordering his retreating troops to about face and march north and west along the Old Smolensk road, Napoléon broke with his own much-vaunted tradition of fortune favours the brave in war, condemning most (almost-all) of his remaining men to die cruel deaths in the bitterest cold of a freezing Russian Steppe during several weeks of madness, in probably the most calamitous retreat ever-recorded in history.
Stay tuned for more Napoléonic numb-skullery
“When they bleached your hair, they must have bleached your brain too.”
“Does it makes sense that a multi-million dollar income should go untaxed year after year?”