A Tale of Two Empires

by Mina Hamilton

Dissident Voice

March 28, 2003


As reported by the Knight-Ridder news service, President Bush enjoyed the opening salvos of the war.  He watched the barrage of bombs hitting Baghdad, pounded his desk and said, “Feels good.” (1)


This chilling moment reminds me of Napoleon Bonaparte who once quipped, “A man like me cares nothing for a million lives.” (2) 


As American GIs trundle across a desert over 6000 miles from US shores a comparison with the French Emperor is apt.  Napoleon’s mad, ill-augured invasion of Russia in 1812 is similar to Bush’s insane march to Baghdad.


There are big differences between the two men.  Napoleon was sharp as a whip.  A military genius, he also oversaw the revision of French law.  He never needed a speechwriter.


Napoleon shared the dangers of his troops.  Before a fray, he rode or walked over the battlefield.  Sometimes he personally manned the cannons.  Bush prefers to be as far from war’s carnage as a NASA computer techie is from an orbiting space shuttle.


Where the comparison sharpens is the US’s current war.  The advance on Baghdad has the same delusional quality as Napoleon’s 1400-mile-march from Paris to Moscow.  In pre-combustion-engine-days, this journey was a staggering feat.  Over 200,000 horses were required to drag cannons, ammunition, and provisions for a 600,000-man army over muddy, rutted roads, deep snow and treacherous ice.


For the last two centuries historians have sought the motive behind Napoleon’s mad venture.  There was the alleged “strategic” reason of forcing the Russian Tsar to abide by an economic blockade of England, but historians suggest another explanation.


The distinguished historian Albert Guerard said, “[Napoleon] was an autocrat, drunk with power and pride…his ambitions could brook no limit…” And “it was the insane will of one man against the world.” (3)


Given the record of US support of brutal dictators (Marcos of the Philippines, Pinochet of Chile, Suharto of Indonesia, the Shah of Iran, to name a few) future historians will scoff at Bush’s pretext: the toppling of a brutal dictator.  Instead, they’ll point to the US’s grab for world dominance by snatching Iraq’s vast oil fields.  Twenty-five percent of the world’s oil reserves is a tidy plum.


For over a decade strategic thinkers, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, have been itching for this war.  They genuinely believe US hegemony depends on controlling the Middle East.  One wonders, however, about the role of Bush’s personality.  What’s behind the smirk? 


Bush is a laughing stock.  Pilloried in humiliating cartoons, mocked worldwide for choking on a pretzel, doesn’t he yearn to be taken seriously? What better way to go down in history than as the “liberator” of Iraq?  


Or has this arrogant bully, like Napoleon, just become drunk with power?


Whatever the reasons, the US war machine is rolling. 


In the case of Napoleon’s Russian invasion the bloody absurdity of war was soon apparent as waves of French troops galloped straight into barrages of Russian cannonballs. In one day over 30,000 of what was known as the Grand Army sank to the earth dying. 


By the end of the disastrous invasion, somewhere between 400,000 and 560,000 men in the Grand Army had died.  They died for nothing -- but the delusions of the Emperor.


American soldiers are not going to suffer these kinds of casualties in Iraq.  This time most casualties will be Iraqis, just as they were in Gulf War 1, when at least 100,000 –200,000 Iraqi troops were killed.  But, as Week One of the war shows, far too many Americans will die as well.


The French war was a war of hallucination.  Napoleon believed he would be met at the gates of Moscow by cheering boyars.  His dream: the Russian aristocracy would fete him at lavish parties.  Instead, what Napoleon found was a deserted city in flames.  


Just as delusional is the idea that the populace of Baghdad, after having been bombed to smithereens, will dance in the streets when US troops arrive.  Some commentators note that a few Iraqis may provide their new bosses with photo ops of celebration.  Right behind the thrown kisses will be hatred of the invader – as we already see in Basra and Nasiriya.


Another similarity is the loot.  Napoleon’s troops left Moscow with horse-pulled wagons laden with jeweled crosses, silver candlesticks, brocades, furs, exquisitely bound leather books, fine wines – even in one case an iron bedstead!


Commoners did not haul off the spoils of war.  Only the nobles could afford the folly of dozens of horses to cart away loot-filled wagons.


In the bitter, disastrous retreat out of Russia, the Grand Army nobles and commoners alike started to freeze and starve.  Soon they sank into the snow, dying.  The booty was left behind in the frozen tundra.


No loot is coming the way of American GI’s, but Bush’s inner circle is another matter.


There’s Dick Cheney’s ex-company, Halliburton, landing multimillion dollar contracts to build huge tent cities in Kuwait and Turkey.  Next are the lavish contracts for rebuilding a destroyed Iraq. 


There’s Richard Perle’s Trireme Partners, a venture capital company.  It’s promoting investments in homeland security technology. 


There are the oodles of profits from the oil fields of Iraq.  They’ll lubricate Bush’s next Presidential campaign. 


Unlike the Russian nobles, Bush & Co will not die in the sands of Iraq.  Alas, in the years to come, hundreds of US soldiers, engineers and support staff probably will perish as the Iraqi people fight off a hated, occupying army.


The verdict of many historians: Napoleon’s reign ended because of the senseless butchery of the Russian invasion. This, plus the economic hardships and high taxes of endless wars, turned the wildly popular Napoleon into a hated tyrant. 


Within 16 months of the retreat from Moscow, the Tsar of Russia occupied Paris.  Shortly thereafter, Napoleon was driven from power.  The ex-Emperor was soon languishing on the tiny island of Elba.


Will the demise of Bush come so quickly upon the heels of the Iraq War?  Maybe so -- certainly we must all fight for this goal.


Already buried in the sands of Iraq?  American ideals.  The concept of a just and free land has bit the dust.      


As if hit by mortars, the Statue of Liberty is crumbling.  Great chunks of bronze are plopping into New York harbor.


Unless we resist the American Empire abroad and the police state at home, soon there’ll be little left of the Lady of Our Harbor.  Just ripples moving out over the ocean.


Mina Hamilton is a writer in New York City.  She has a MA in History from Radcliffe-Harvard and is a Research Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates.  She can be reached at minaham@aol.com.




(1) Merzer M., Hutchinson R., Brown D., “War begins in Iraq with strikes at ‘leadership targets,’ “ Knight Ridder Newspapers, March 20, 2003.


(2) Guerard, Albert, Napoleon 1, p. 152


(3) Guerard, Albert, Napoleon 1, p. 123-125.




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