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Napoleon’s Fatal Mistake

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo

Napoleon

France of the 1790’s provided an ideal place for Napoleon Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to the top. Paul Johnson explains in Napoleon: A Life:

It demonstrated the classic parabola of revolution: a constitutional beginning; reformist moderation quickening into ever-increasing extremism; a descent into violence; a period of sheer terror, ended by a violent reaction; a time of confusion, cross-currents, and chaos, marked by growing exhaustion and disgust with change; and eventually an overwhelming demand for “a Man on horseback” to restore order, regularity, and prosperity.

Napoleon epitomized opportunism.

Bonaparte believed not in revolution but in change; perhaps accelerated evolution is the exact term. He wanted things to work better, or more fairly, and also faster. In England he would have been a utilitarian; in the United States, a federalist and a follower of Alexander Hamilton …

For better or worse, he was a product of the revolution.

The program could not have been successfully carried out without Bonaparte—that is certain. But equally certain is that Bonaparte would not have possessed the ruthless disregard of human life, of natural and man-made law, of custom and good faith needed to carry it through without the positive example and teaching of the Revolution. The Revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil.

In this awesome transformation, Bonaparte was the Demogorgon, the infernal executive, superbly molded by nature and trained by his own ambitions and experiences to take the fullest advantage of the power the Revolution had created and bequeathed to him.

In his first invasion of Italy in 1796, an “imaginative and symbolic” success he set the tone for his relationship with his troops:

Soldiers, you are naked, ill-fed. … But rich provinces and great towns will soon be in your power, and in them you will find honor, glory, and wealth. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be wanting in courage and steadfastness [to obtain these things.]

His implicit contract with his troops: win the war and take the loot. One small and powerful gesture that might be looked over is that Bonaparte made it easy for their spoils to be transferred back to their families.

This made military sense, for it enabled soldiers to save instead of squandering their trophies on drunken debauchery.

Part of Napoleon’s success resulted from the difference between him and his enemies. The Duke of Wellington, who would ultimately be victorious at Waterloo, pinpointed Bonaparte’s advantage.

I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Napoleon at the head of an army—especially a French army. Then he had one prodigious advantage—he had no responsibility—he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did. Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much. I knew that if I ever lost 500 men without the clearest necessity, I should be brought one my knees to the bard of the House of Commons.

Before Bonaparte, Wellington had only seen delegated power in the field. Now he was facing direct power. For example, he appointed his own subordinates whereas Wellington often had generals foisted upon him.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, in terms of how the weak win wars. Often they don’t appear to play by what we consider the established rules. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, Arreguín-Toft concludes in his book How the Weak Win Wars, they win, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Napoleon enjoyed a freedom to take risks that his adversaries wouldn’t or couldn’t take for political or other reasons. These risks fit perfectly with “his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking.”

The soldiers liked this high-risk approach. In their calculations, they were as likely to be killed by a defensive and cautious commander as by an attacking one, and with little chance of loot to balance the risk.

Myrbach-Aspern-Essling

Ultimately Bonaparte’s most useful weapon was fear.

It was this one he employed most frequently. In his aggressive strategy, it gave him a head start-it was as though an invisible army had softened up the enemy’s defenses before a French shot was fired.

When fighting campaigns, Bonaparte, with few exceptions, was usually vastly outnumbered. Often the other side was a coalition of nations.

His strategy therefore was not only to strike quickly but to strike between his opponents’ forces, before they could join together. He went for each in turn, hoping he would have numerical superiority and defeat them separately. The Allied armies thus rarely had the confidence of numbers, and even when they had, Bonaparte’s notorious ability to bring up reinforcements quickly and surprisingly tended to undermine it.

Napoleon also showed a great understanding by aligning his instructions with his strategy.

No matter how well drilled and disciplined, a unit was likely to lose formation if ordered to carry out complicated movements over distances. Hence, the simpler the plan the better, and the simplest plan as: attack!

Generals for their part, preferred simple plans. Often these instructions had to be carried by hand to the front line and innumerable things could go wrong.

Bonaparte’s most brilliant victory, at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, can be summed up for three reasons:

First, he had complete unity of command. The senior Allied commander, M.I. Kutuzov, had in practice no chance to adopt and carry out a unified tactical plan, and authority was hopelessly divided between sovereigns and individual commanders, some of whom acted on their own initiative. Second, in the poor conditions, orders were frequently miscarried or were misunderstood or disobeyed. … Third, French united operated more efficiently. Their cavalry, and the artillery were persistently resourceful: informed that the Russians were trying to escape over frozen ponds, they quickly prepared red-hot shots and fired them into the ice, breaking it, and causing 2,000 Russians to be drowned.”

I found this bit particularly enlightening. Organizations, large and small, would do well to listen to the lesson embedded within this passage.

What few possessed—and therein lay their weakness—was independence of mind. They were, almost without exception, subordinates. Under the command of a decisive military genius like Bonaparte, they could perform prodigies. They rushed to obey his orders, to please him, to earn his praise and rewards. Sometimes, given an independent command, they acted well, especially if his orders were explicit and the task reasonably simple. But on their own, they tended to be nervous, looking over their shoulders, unresourceful in facing new problems he had not taught them how to solve. This exasperated the emperor, especially in Spain, where they all failed.”

But it was his own fault.

He did not like to delegate, and therefore the men he promoted under his command tended to be those who carried out his orders with precision, rather than men with their own minds. The weakness was central to the failure of the empire, for Bonaparte used his marshals and generals not only to command distant armies, which he could not supervise in detail, but to govern provinces and kingdoms, run embassies, put down rebellions, and deal with all of the crises that, from time to time, swept across territories of nearly eighty million souls.

If you’re hiring men and women who, while they can carry out instructions lack a general ability to think, what makes you think your results will be different?

In Napoleon: A Life is “the magisterial historian Paul Johnson offers a vivid look at the life of the strategist, general, and dictator who conquered much of Europe.”