March 09, 2006

Solutions to Iraq - Or, how many people are really going to die?

Some comments at Wretchard's good analysis of chaos vs order in Iraq, solutions to the premier 21st century problem.

ipw533 said...

" What Napoleon failed to realize in his 1812 campaign against Russia was that the Tsarist state was so primitive that the destruction of its army simply did not mean the corresponding demise of its state. Like the proverbial dinosaur of pulp fiction, Russia had no central nervous system to destroy and lumbered on, like the bullet-riddled monster of horror stories, impervious to the Grand Armee. What Russia had on its side was chaos as epitomized by its savage winters."

Sorry, but I must take issue with the above passage--it completely mischaracterizes the Russian response to the 1812 invasion.

The Romanov government was hardly primitive and was quite vulnerable--just not to Napoleon's soldiers. Aleksandr I realized the folly of entering into the Peace of Tilsit when its terms cut Russia off from one of its primary trading partners--Great Britain--and when Napoleon resurrected an old Polish enemy in the form of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The economic and political fallout from this caused the Russians to withdraw from the Continental system and provoked Napoleon's invasion.

The initial deployment of the Russian armies facing Napoleon was as unfortunate for them as the Red Army's later deployment on the eve of Operation Barbarossa--fortunately for Aleksandr, the [i]Grand Armee[/i] couldn't move as quickly as the Wehrmacht.

The Russian retreat and "scorched earth" tactics quite cleverly took advantage of Russia's spatial dimensions and wore the French and their allies down psychologically and logistically, but at some point for political reasons battle had to be given--thus the relatively minor but punishing encounter at Smolensk and the subsequent major battle at Borodino.

Borodino is generally seen as a victory for Napoleon as the Russians quit the battlefield and subsequently abandoned Moscow to the French, but the loss of Moscow meant different things to Napoleon and Aleksandr. To Napoleon it meant that he had defeated an army in the field and captured a capitol and now Aleksandr had to sue for terms. Aleksandr understood that the army had been defeated but not destroyed, that St. Petersburg rather than Moscow was was Russia's real capitol and that any negotiation with Napoleon would result in a possible palace coup by more hard-line Romanovs. Reinforcements were coming, and so was winter--he merely had to wait.

As much as Napoleon's troops, retreating in winter after a conveniently mysterious fire destroyed the largely wooden city of Moscow, suffered from the brutal cold they suffered more from Kutuzov's "Golden Bridge" strategy. The Russians forced the French to retreat over the same ground they had stripped bare the previous summer; any attempt to move through territory where the French soldiers could forage was met with vicious attacks. Thus the French were subjected to starvation as well as cold, disease (always a treat to armies of that time) and Russian military depredations.

At no time did the Russians just simply "lumber on"--they used their advantages and chose their battles. Aleksandr I understood that his personal fate hung in the balance as well as Russia's and made his decisions accordingly--right up to his appointment of Marshal Kutuzov, a man he personally loathed.

And the Russian army was hardly impervious to the [i]Grand Armee[/i]; had Barclay de Tolly not pulled it back to fight at Borodino and thus salvage its honor and capabilities Aleksandr would have stood helpless before Napoleon and his own court....
5:31 PM
Buddy Larsen said...

The next eastward-invading western dictator will have two almost identical disasters to study, only 130 years apart.
6:09 PM
wretchard said...


The loss at Borodino and the capital at Moscow would have been enough to put paid to a Western European state. But it did not destroy the Czarist state because it was, as Bobbitt argues, a kingly state (le etat c'est moi) rather than a more modern bureaucratic state in the mold of Napoleon's earlier enemies. So long as the Czar lived and his authority was respected, Napoleon would have no victory.

Napoleon's tattered and starved army remained able to elude the lumbering Russian pursuit and in fact crossed the Berzina river against a defended opposite bank while fighting a rearguard action behind it, which was a feat of arms worthy of the Anabasis. There were later Russian inquiries as to how Napoleon, outnumbered, caught behind and before was still able to elude the Russians on their soil. Whatever else Napoleon was, he was a genius and leader of men.

One of the lesser known aspects of Napoleon's retreat is that the Russians starved and froze in vast numbers as well. Old man winter and hunger respected no uniform.

After the campaign Napoleon's defeat was depicted as something of national miracle, which in a way it was.


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