Napoleon in Russia: Why some wars go on until there's no-one left to fight

Two hundred years ago Sunday, Napoleon crossed into Russian territory with the largest army the world had ever seen; the following December 16th, the main body of his force counted just 16,000 men as it crossed the Russian frontier on the way out. “Am I a Napoleon, am I a Mohammed?,” muses Dostoevsky’s murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.  What linked the legendary founder of Islam and the author of a legendary military catastrophe in Dostoevsky’s mind, I think, was this: charismatic leaders launch wars of total attrition by offering advancement to ambitious young men with nothing to lose. Wars of this sort continue until there aren’t enough young men left to put into the ranks. Frenchmen and Americans have fought this kind of war with suicidal abandon; all the more so should we expect such wars of attrition to characterize the Middle East during the next generation.

The strangest thing about Napoleon’s Russia campaign is what happened afterwards: despite the catastrophe, Napoleon was twice able to raise enormous armies, the first in 1813 (when a coalition of his former allies ganged up on him at Leipzig), and again in 1815, after he returned from his brief exile to Elba and lost at Waterloo.

As I report in a “Spengler” essay this morning, enthusiasm for the jumped-up Corsican lieutenant of artillery remained undiminished until there simply weren’t enough Frenchmen left to die for him. Roughly 30% of the military-age men of France died for Napoleon (and very large numbers of volunteers from the rest of Europe). After France replaced its lost generation, it bled for his nephew Napoleon III. Human beings will throw away their lives with abandon for the chance to jump a few steps up the social ladder.

The same proportion of military-age men died for the Confederacy during the Civil War, which fought until there simply weren’t enough men to replenish the ranks. 30% seems to be the critical number (although the Serbs managed to lose fully  half their military-age men during the First World War). When you approach the one-third marker, the available pool of manpower diminishes rapidly. As I observe in Asia Times:

Like the Confederacy of 1865, France was bled dry by 1815 after absorbing losses on this staggering scale. It takes sustained heroism and resilience to slaughter a whole generation, and this heroism feeds on the hopes and dreams of ambitious young men. Napoleon offered his recruits the opportunity to rise above the ruins of Europe’s old aristocratic order. The men of the South fought – as Professor Robert May argued persuasively in his 1973 study The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire – for the chance to get land and slaves, even if only a tenth of them already owned slaves when the war erupted.

There was something distinctly Napoleonic about southern ambitions. If the Corsican artillery officer could become the emperor of Europe, then every corporal could entertain dreams of a field commission and entry into Napoleon’s nobility. The poor Scots-Irish farmers who fought for the Confederacy hoped to join the pseudo-aristocracy of slaveholders. And for these ambitions, both fought with nearly suicidal tenacity.

Again, the decisive consideration is that the men of France as well as the men of the Confederacy stopped fighting not because they were tired of fighting, or because their odds of winning were negligible, but rather because there simply weren’t enough of them left to put up a fight. Evil causes as well as good ones can draw on the impassioned enthusiasm and capacity for self-sacrifice of a whole generation of young men.

“Am I a Napoleon, am I a Mohammed?” Raskolnikov’s question should remind us that in the Christian West, indeed in the United States of America, we have encountered generations willing to die in unlimited numbers in the service of an evil cause. The memory of Napoleon no longer persuades Europeans to commit mass suicide. The memory of Mohammed, tragically, is a different matter.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member