Bin Laden as Napoleon

A comparison

By Dave Kopel, research director, Independence Institute

November 19, 2001 11:10 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on terrorists.

Osama bin Laden is a lot like Hitler — a man consumed by hate, evil to his core, determined to murder every Jew on the planet, and doomed to infamy on the ash heap of history. But there are some important points of comparison between bin Laden and Napoleon Bonaparte — illuminating bin Laden 's military sophistication, as well as the egotistic strategic and diplomatic failures which make his defeat inevitable.

First of all, Napoleon and bin Laden both expanded and civilianized warfare. Before Napoleon, limited warfare had been European norm for centuries. Armies were expensive and not easily replaced. As Carl von Clausewitz explained in On War, "Even a royal commander had to use his army with a minimum of risk. If the army was pulverized, he could not raise another, and behind the army there was nothing. That enjoined the greatest prudence on all operations."

Reluctant to lose their armies in decisive clashes, generals fought wars of maneuver, hoping to put the enemy in an untenable position which would require a retreat. Europe's monarchies fought for limited and reasonably attainable objectives — e.g., taking back a disputed province, propping up a friendly ruler in a smaller country — rather than the utter destruction of their opponents.

Beginning with the revolutionary French government's levee en masse in 1793, the French system of conscription succeeded in putting vastly larger numbers of citizens in arms. Rather than being numbered in the tens of thousands, the French armies had hundreds of thousands. True, America, Switzerland, and England all had large armed populations of militia — essentially all able-bodied adult males. But these militias were useful almost exclusively for homeland defense, and ill-suited to aggressive wars of conquest. The French conscript army was a genuine standing army, and proved itself capable of wars of conquest very far from France. During most of the Napoleonic wars, French generals could afford to fight battles with massive losses, because there were more conscripts to replace the casualties.

Writing in the military history magazine First Empire, British historian John Cook explains that Napoleon succeeded as a military leader because he knew how to adapt to the new form of warfare. He took advantage of "improved command structures and staff systems" which could direct the massive French army with amazing speed and overwhelming force at the enemy's most vulnerable point.

Cooks points out that Napoleon, rather than using his force and mobility advantages to force an enemy retreat, instead,

would concentrate force against the enemy's flanks and communications. By these methods, and, as important, a ruthless pursuit, he could fight the campaign of annihilation which was his main objective. It was this objective to destroy the enemy's army, the country's ability to resist, that really sets Napoleon apart from the generals of the eighteenth century. Where they would fight for an advantage at the negotiating table, a fortress here or a province there, Napoleon fought battles of destruction so that the enemy's ability to resist was broken. Then he could dictate his terms.

Now consider some of the ways in which bin Laden has changed the nature of war. Like Napoleon, his ability consists less in actual innovation than in honing and integrating techniques which have been introduced by other terrorists.

Bin Laden too has civilianized war, starting the first war in American history in which civilians, not the military, are the primary target. Just as Napoleon could disregard the deaths of his soldiers, because replacements were available, bin Laden can call on a reserve of disaffected, evil young men from well-off families throughout the Arab world and South Asia.

Al Qaeda's command and communications structure was much superior to that of previous terrorists. Because the cells are isolated, the capture of one cell does not endanger the rest of the terrorist network. Bin Laden may have communicated with his minions through steganography (embedding messages in Internet pictures or music).

Like Napoleon, bin Laden is striking at our communications structures — air travel and (probably) postal communications. Bin Laden could not possibly destroy our army, so instead he aims to destroy our country's ability or will to resist.

Unlike bin Laden, Napoleon had no ambition to murder for the sake of murder. But, although Napoleon could be compassionate towards his wounded soldiers, the suffering of humans was irrelevant to him. In 1813, he remarked to Austria's Count Metternich "What do I care for the lives of a million men?" As Thomas Jefferson wrote, if Napoleon, "could consider the millions of human lives which he had destroyed, the desolations of countries...and all the numberless train of his other enormities; the man, I say, who could consider all these as no crimes must have been a moral monster, against whom every hand should have been lifted to slay him."

The shared weakness of bin Laden and Napoleon was the limitlessness of their ambition, and their inability to recognize that the more they abused other nations, the greater the force that would be raised against them.

Cook writes:

Again with Prussia prostrate at his feet in 1807 he dictated terms that were so harsh that the flame of German Nationalism was kindled. A flame that would burn so fiercely that the Prussians would be his most vengeful enemies in the succeeding years.

His complete misreading of the Iberian and Russian peoples as well as the Russian Tsar led to horrendous campaigns in both countries. As for Britain, could any one but Napoleon devise a stratagem like the Berlin Decrees that forbade trading with her, without expecting her to become his most implacable enemy. After that no amount of statesmanship could have reconciled Britain to Napoleonic France. Finally in 1813, after the disaster of the 1812 campaign in Russia, Napoleon managed to get every major power in Europe lined up against himself. The battle of Leipzig and Napoleon's abdication in 1814 were the result.

Bin Laden too has misread his enemies. Two decades of feeble American responses to acts of terrorism in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and World Trade Center in 1993, led bin Laden to believe that the American response to September 11 would be similar feeble or, on other hand, wildly violent. He never understood the transforming effect of killing thousands of innocents on American soil. He didn't realize that soccer moms would turn into hawks, and start applying for concealed-handgun permits, so they could shoot terrorists — and that rather than panic and demand atomic strikes on September 12, they would coolly support the president's carefully developed plans to isolate and destroy al Qaeda, without provoking war with Islam.

The Napoleonic wars saw six different coalitions which resisted Napoleon. Finally, he was finally defeated by the Sixth Coalition, in which the most advanced nation in the world (England) allied with the most despotic (Russia), who in turn put aside her conflicts with Germany and Austria. These great powers agreed to ignore, for a while, the issues over which they had fought for centuries because, in Cook's words, "even the most undiscerning continental governments realized that Napoleon's intentions were clear enough — total French political and commercial hegemony in Europe to the exclusion of all others."

Cook concludes: "It is a tribute to his powers as a general that it required the joint efforts of Great Britain, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Prussia, Austria, Sweden and a number of the German states to bring him down. It is a damming indictment of his powers as a statesman that he could bring all these squabbling, competing counties together in a coalition against him."

Bin Laden's extreme, totalistic objectives have created a new Grand Coalition, as nations once more recognize that they very survival depends on his destruction. His immediate objectives are imposition of a totalitarian regime, under his control, from Morocco to Mindanao — a regime whose vicious abuse of its own women makes it in some ways even more totalitarian than Hitler's. In the long term, he wants to kill every Jew on the planet, and enslave the rest of the planet with the same totalitarian rule that he has helped impose on Afghanistan. His terrorist training manual argues that Islam has never advanced by voluntary conversion, but only by military conquest.

Yet bin Laden is turning out to have far fewer allies than he expected. His dream of precipitating the fall of Middle Eastern governments may come true. But it now appears that the modernizing, secular military government of Pakistan may be in less danger of toppling than the Islamic theocracy of Iran. And yes, the House of Saud may fall — but the reason may be that Americans finally decide to remove the terrorist world's leading source of money.

Against bin Laden, the anti-Taliban coalition is the broadest that has ever existed in a war on this planet. When was the last time that India, Pakistan, and Japan were all actively helping the same side in war? Who would have thought that Colonel Qaddafi would be applauding American bombing of an Islamic country?

Most importantly, explains Tom Grant of the Foreign Policy Research Institute points out that bin Laden may have united the three great powers: America, Russia, and China. Bin Laden's scheme for Islamist totalitarian terrorism threatens the great powers not just in their distant interests, or in their international rank, but in their domestic tranquility. Even if bin Laden could assemble the grand Islamic alliance which he hopes for, Grant argues, the triple alliance of America-Russia-China is "far more fearsome. . .a weight that indeed no other geopolitical combination whatsoever could withstand."

Although there are important parallels between bin Laden and Napoleon, there are even more important differences, the most important of which is that Napoleon could create as well as destroy. In First Empire, Dana Lombardy writes that Napoleon created the National Bank of France, which used coinage, in preference to paper bills, to provide economic stability. The legal Code Napoleon— which Napoleon considered his greatest accomplishment — became the foundation of law in much of Europe, and remains extremely influential even in this century. He invented France's Lycée schools — providing free, advanced secondary education for France's best students. He built and improved canals and roads, planted trees, established a national department of forestry and the first professional fire brigade in Paris.

Osama bin Laden never created anything. His only talent is destruction. He is the modern vanguard of the anti-intellectual forces that turned the Arab world from a center of civilization in the Middle Ages into a backwater that has contributed nothing to science or the arts for over a century. Bin Laden's only vision is a boot stamping on a human face forever.

Osama bin Laden is no Napoleon. While Napoleon lies at rest in Invalides, bin Laden will have no grand tomb for him in a great city memorializing his genuine accomplishments. But like Napoleon, his megalomania has created a worldwide alliance among the great powers, united to crush a ruthless tyrant who seeks to demolish the world's order.  

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