Recently, George W. Bush was forced to call upon all of his rhetorical skills in order to refute the 9/11 Commission's finding that there was no real link between Iraq and al Qaeda. In his attempt to dismiss the report, the president responded to questions with something close to, "the reason I continue to say that there is a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, is because there is a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda." That is the equivalent of an eight year old saying, "I believe in Santa Claus because I believe in Santa Claus." The total lack of logic in the statement is so obvious, most eight year olds would scoff at it rather than actually say it. They would at least give some sort of explanation for their beliefs. Perhaps they might say, "I believe in Santa Clause because the milk and cookies that I put out for him each Christmas Eve are always gone in the morning." While a child who adheres to this might be considered naïve, he would not be considered totally dimwitted. Our president on the other hand, continues to give credence to the opinion that the Bush gene pool is not nearly as deep as the family would have us believe.
But rather than getting down on what is certainly a depressing situation, perhaps a history lesson would do us all some good. Since today's mainstream media can only go back as far as Vietnam when looking at our country's current folly, perhaps it is the duty of the alternative press to dig a bit deeper. In doing so, Napoleon's foray into Egypt is a wonderful place to stop because it vividly shows that our misadventure in the Middle East is nothing new at all.
David Chandler, in The Campaigns of Napoleon, mentions that the French government prior to Napoleon becoming emperor was "dominated by its own weakness; in order to exist it needed a perpetual state of war just as other governments need peace.” Apparently, the advent of American democracy has not been quite as novel as we once thought. Most historians agree that Napoleon's going to Egypt was nothing more than vanity at its height. What makes that invasion a poignant lesson for our own times is that a large number of civilians came along with the army, mainly scientists and artists. These men of learning were the French version of a "hearts and minds" campaign. The intent behind bringing these academics along was to help the Egyptians see how progressive life in the West was. The thinking was that reason had replaced religion as a means of conversion and the Egyptians would clearly see the French as liberators not occupiers. With these sons of the Enlightenment in tow, Napoleon ventured east.
Bonaparte took Cairo quite easily, much the way we recently took Baghdad. The French did some nice things upon their arrival. While Paul Bremmer was not on the scene, there were army officials aplenty who set up shop in town and gave orders designed to impress the people with the wonders of the West. Naturally, the populace was forced to disarm, but at the same time, an "Institute" was set up which explored everything from the arts to physics. The French delved into irrigation projects and "development" programs with fervor. Arrogantly, they also turned a few mosques into cafes, and flew the tricolor from nearly everything sacred to the Muslim. Within a few months, Muslim clerics were calling for jihad. "Radical" clerics who were not interested in sipping espresso and praying in the same place were soon causing problems for Napoleon. The occupation became more and more heavy handed, countryside insurrections flared up, and the beheading of those not on board with the occupation became common.
Napoleon, his troops, and his academic entourage eventually were forced out of Egypt, and defeated by a British-Ottoman coalition. Interestingly enough, Napoleon was able to convince the French people that his excursion was a success. Lord Nelson decimating his fleet apparently did not reach the papers.
John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson, said this of Napoleon and all those who believe that military force is the answer for everything: "Napoleon has lately invented a word which perfectly expresses my opinion, at that time and ever since. He calls the project Ideology; and…it was all madness.”
So, in these difficult times, it is important to heed the advice (at least on this particular point) of Paul Harvey, who once said, “In times like these it is good to remember that there have always been times like these.” The madness of our King George is nothing new. The characters may change, but the principal acts of the play remain the same. In a previous letter to Jefferson, Adams wrote of a French official with whom he had recently met: "In plain truth, I was astonished at the grossness of his ignorance of government and history." It would not be surprising to learn of similar comments being said by the world leaders of today after having met our president. What is surprising is that Bonaparte was able to use the supposed rise of reason over religion as an excuse to invade another country. Bush on the other hand, has managed to supplant reason with his very narrow and limited grasp of the Christian religion to gain support for his war.
As a nation, we are not very well versed in history. With that being the case, it is unlikely that we will avoid problems today based on lessons of the past. Perhaps we could at least come to realize that short men whose last names start with the letter "B" should not be given the reigns to the largest armies of their day and allowed to go east.
June 26, 2004
John Schroder [send him mail] is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former Marine infantry officer. Having resigned his commission, he is to begin doctoral work in political science this fall at Louisiana State.