Thursday, July 08, 2004

A Tale of Long Ago

When Napoleon reconnoitered the Duke of Wellington's position at Waterloo on June 18, 1815 he remarked to his Marshals that beating the English would be no more serious an affair than "eating breakfast". It was the Emperor's habit to disparage the enemy in front of his men, but inwardly his heart misgave him. Napoleon knew that if Wellington's ally Field Marshal Blucher could concentrate his additional forces on Wellington's left before the close of day that "France was lost". There remained but one chance: to rout Wellington before Blucher arrived. He ordered D'Erlon's corps forward at the pas de charge in one last desperate throw of the dice.

In 2004, French audiences flocking to Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 to laugh at the stupidity and weakness of their rivals are subconciously participating in a gambit of equal desperation: the notion that if George Bush's reelection can be prevented by a John Kerry victory, that the liberal project which had been thrown off the rails by the September 11 attacks can somehow be set in motion again and the world restored to its proper course. Absent is the Napoleonic self-awareness of the man concious of impending tragedy yet daring it nonetheless.

Waterloo had been lost before Napoleon set foot on the battlefield. The principal Napoleonic innovation of the Army Corps, which enabled combined arms manuever at a subordinate level and proved decisive against the inflexible and unitary command structures of his enemies had been copied and bettered by the Prussians. With characteristic efficiency, the Prussians took Napoleon's inspired improvisations and created a general staff system and restructured their armies so that their brigades were combined arms units, French Corps in miniature. And as for Wellington, he had of old time beaten all of France's Marshals in Spain. Napoleon entered the field at the peak of his powers backed by an army of veterans yet he was not to win. It was not that Napoleon had grown smaller; it was that his enemies had grown larger.

The transnational liberal project and the dream of radical Islam are alike pursuits after a lost glories. In its eighth century heyday, Islam wielded a two-edged sword. Not only were their mobile tactics superior to those of the petty kingdoms around them, they brandished a creed and social structure which was in many ways superior to the barbarian modes which they encountered. Similarly, while Napoleon wielded the levees en masse; he rode on the greater wave of revolutionary France before whose ideas the dynastic houses of Europe trembled. But at the dawn of the 21st century, these two mighty blades had dwindled into single-edged fillets of rusted iron. Islam no longer the representative of a prosperous and tolerant society and the idea of France shrunken to a kind of petty socialism peopled with legions of pensioners.

The truly terrifying thing about the American sword is that it is genuinely two-edged. The front edge consists of military power unparalleled in human history. Yet it is the weaker side; the back edge consists of a system with an an uncanny ability to absorb almost any sort of human, scientific and engineering potential and convert it into unimaginable wealth. The front edge is used but to ward; but it is the back edge that truly destroys rival societies. Osama Bin Laden struck New York first of all and the Pentagon only as a secondary target. The McDonald's hamburger is hated by the French elite more ardently than any Nazi SS division. Both fear the back edge more than the front.

The real strategic problem of the Jihadis is that their power is so one-dimensional. They have the ability to slit throats, burn with acid, stone or destroy with explosives but none whatsoever to produce abundant food, medicine or clothing. One might join the Jihad to act out one's hate or satisfy a sense of adventure, but not to pay the rent. Analogously, the strategic problem of Europe is that it is in monotonic decline. It is shrinking in population and aging; growing at a slower rate than America and much slower than either China or India. Yet both are proud and ancient visions who imagine that they can reverse their fortunes with a few telling blows. Yet just as Osama Bin Laden discovered that destroying the World Trade Center only causes a new and taller one to be built, in addition to the loss of Afghanistan and Iraq to the Jihadi cause, the French may discover that not even the election of John Kerry -- which is by no means foregone -- will alter the underlying tale. Only by changing themselves -- and not by watching Michael Moore -- can they recover their dynamism and become competitive again. But for the moment, let us return to the last hours at Waterloo as imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle.

But a sight lay before me which held me fast as though I had been turned into some noble equestrian statue. I could not move, I could scarce breathe, as I gazed upon it. There was a mound over which my path lay, and as I came out on the top of it I looked down the long, shallow valley of Waterloo. I had left it with two great armies on either side and a clear field between them. Now there were but long, ragged fringes of broken and exhausted regiments upon the two ridges, but a real army of dead and wounded lay between. For two miles in length and half a mile across the ground was strewed and heaped with them. But slaughter was no new sight to me, and it was not that which held me spellbound. It was that up the long slope of the British position was moving a walking forest-black, tossing, waving, unbroken. Did I not know the bearskins of the Guard? And did I not also know, did not my soldier's instinct tell me, that it was the last reserve of France; that the Emperor, like a desperate gamester, was staking all upon his last card? Up they went and up--grand, solid, unbreakable, scourged with musketry, riddled with grape, flowing onward in a black, heavy tide, which lapped over the British batteries. With my glass I could see the English gunners throw themselves under their pieces or run to the rear. On rolled the crest of the bearskins, and then, with a crash which was swept across to my ears, they met the British infantry. A minute passed, and another, and another. My heart was in my mouth.

They swayed back and forward; they no longer advanced; they were held. Great Heaven! was it possible that they were breaking? One black dot ran down the hill, then two, then four, then ten, then a great, scattered, struggling mass, halting, breaking, halting, and at last shredding out and rushing madly downward. "The Guard is beaten! The Guard is beaten!" From all around me I heard the cry. Along the whole line the infantry turned their faces and the gunners flinched from their guns.

"The Old Guard is beaten! The Guard retreats!" An officer with a livid face passed me yelling out these words of woe. "Save yourselves! Save yourselves! You are betrayed!" cried another. "Save yourselves! Save yourselves!" Men were rushing madly to the rear, blundering and jumping like frightened sheep. Cries and screams rose from all around me. And at that moment, as I looked at the British position, I saw what I can never forget. A single horseman stood out black and clear upon the ridge against the last red angry glow of the setting sun. So dark, so motionless, against that grim light, he might have been the very spirit of Battle brooding over that terrible valley. As I gazed, he raised his hat high in the air, and at the signal, with a low, deep roar like a breaking wave, the whole British army flooded over their ridge and came rolling down into the valley.

-- read the rest from How The Brigadier Bore Himself At Waterloo by  Arthur Conan Doyle