Boris Johnson’s master cerebrovascular incident.
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.
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?”
Reading Robert Bilott’s ‘Exposure’ on Du Pont’s chemical pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the book in giving a great deal of legal and personal background to the story in the film Dark Waters (see below), answered a question that came to me while seeing the film: why wasn’t Bilott removed from his Ohio corporate law firm particularly as corporate defence was its main bread and butter?
I wondered how Du Pont’s power didn’t trump Bilott’s personal and moral interest in the plight of one farmer, Wilbur Earl Tennant, by simply pulling strings to give the crusading lawyer an offer he couldn’t refuse. Get out of town boyo, now. They tried. More power to Rob for his courage and dedication, and to Earl of course who started the whole process.
Rob Bilott in jumping the fence to take the plaintiff’s side against Du Pont uncovers an ugly story of corporate harm done to the community of Parkersburg and surrounding populations. The casual and arrogant ease with which this immensely powerful and rich corporation lied and cheated and eventually killed people in the pursuit of profit is as stunning as it was breathtaking (pun intended).
Working in tandem with weak and complicit authorities to hide the facts of a chemical dumping program, Du Pont knowingly carried on its ‘corporate crime’ for years and years, poisoning water supplies, the air and earth, abusing the basic trust its economic stranglehold over the small community provided by economic default, placing a virtual muzzle on anyone who dared question its activities. And I am still only half way through…more later, COVID-19 lockdown giving me valuable reading time.
As Brexit continues morphing out over the coming months, I think we should begin sharing experiences of what it has been like to live in and freely travel around Europe before our rights disappear. The ‘good’ the young of Britain in particular are about to lose.
Automatic right to be and travel inside Europe without a visa, attend universities, work without foreigner status conditions, to learn languages, share in the life as citizens of Europe with equal rights.
What the Europe Union does so well is not to look towards obvious economic stimulants as bridges to future social, cultural and economic activity, but to social and cultural stimulants, which when aggregated from individual life-changing experiences multiply in exponential societal ways, not only across Europe but across the world. Europe is a civil and cultural force unlike any other.
Here is an early pre-FOM personal European experience, before freedom of movement was instituted, but giving reason to why it is so good for societies and individuals.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ancient Odeon, built by Herod Atticus 161 AD, situated at the foot of the rock of the Acropolis with the Parthenon as a backdrop. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus written up by Vernon Kidd in the New York Times, describing a 1981 Athenian summer component in a plethora of Europe-wide festivals, The Athens Festival awaiting travellers… “plays of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes … presented by the National Theater of Greece, the Amphi-Theater, the Art Theater and Northern Greece State Theater. Tickets: from $1.20 to $6. July 5 to Sept. 25.” As Kidd’s NY times article detailed, Ancient Greek theatre in the ancient Odeon was only a small part of a Europe-wide extravaganza of arts festivals in the summer of 1981.
So, unaware of any of the above, one hot early July ’81 evening I wandered up the road from my Plaka hotel to the Acropolis, this young filmmaker then resident of Hong Kong. As darkness gathered, I sat myself on a wall to take in the dusk scene at a spot overlooking the lit-up Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre. A rehearsal was going on way down below. Intrigued very quickly by what I saw, I hiked down the hill to find out what it was I was watching. A poster outside the Odeon announced the Athens Summer Festival’s showing of The Acharnians by Aristophanes. Had I see an Aristophanes play before? No.
I returned to my hotel and the next day bought a ticket for the play at a ticket outlet – (prices of the day ranging from $1.20 to $6). I found a Penguin translation of the play in a bookshop, read it, and no wiser I have to say set off a night later to see the performance.
The Acharnians was first performed in 426 BC. A strident anti-war play it is credited with being the oldest staged Greek comedy. I didn’t know what to expect because the Penguin translation did not make anything clear. Still, I had seen the rehearsal. That was enough. The play itself would do the rest.
The Odeon theatre is an extraordinary space, but on a hot July summer night it is other-worldly. The night air made translucent by light was alive with what looked like tiny floating tips of flowers, rising in the warm air all throughout the amphitheatre. In jeans, t-shirt, sandals surrounded by Greeks in evening dress I felt a rank outsider. Yet nobody cared.
What truly resonates with me most, nearly forty years later, is how an ancient play, interpreted, performed and directed as it was, was soon so relevant for a 1981 audience. Filled with dance, mime, mask, and music, George Kounis’ (or Kouns’) production lifted me off my seat. This was not a stilted play from Ancient Greece, a production I remembered too well from university productions. The Penguin translation was swept from my mind.
Dicæopolis, a native of Acharnæ and an ex-soldier returns disillusioned from the Persian wars, heartsick at the miseries and stupidities of the conflict. Not shy in making his views known, with earthy gestures he rails against fellow citizens, while a chorus of startled, indignant citizens in white masks, odd hats and fantastic bed square sewn quilt costumes, rush in dance formation from one side of the stage to the other, all to a cacophony of startling music and sound effects, remonstrating with him and each other. The audience was in stitches inside minutes. I didn’t understand a word yet understood everything.
As a writer it is hard to communicate the effect this experience has had on me: the hot July night, the western world’s most ancient comedy, the mime, dance, costume, design and performances, Greeks all around me ‘rolling in aisles’, the old director helped on stage after the performance – I felt as if theatre itself, not only the ancient Greek concept of ‘spectacle,’ had finally been made clear to me.
photograph by and courtesy of Berthold Werner 2017
The future is dead. Long live the glorious past.
I don’t usually republish articles but Ian McEwan’s Guardian piece, Brexit, the most pointless, masochistic ambition in our country’s history, is done, deserves our thanks.
Take a bow all inside the inner-office cabal of getting brexit done. You couldn’t have done better if you had lined up Britain’s young against a wall. In terms of self-annihilation Brexit ranks with Napoléon’s march into Russia.