Saturday, July 31, 2010

Appreciation: Bell on Total War

David A. Bell's The First Total War is a pretty good book on the relationship of war and imagination--or rather, two, maybe three, books, although it is not clear that the author himself has quite sorted them out.

The subject is the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.  Perhaps the best and certainly the portion most central to the author's apparent thesis is his account of the delusional arrogance of the first generation of revolutionary leaders, who blundered into a kind of war the world hadn't seen before, to the cost of many including, in large measure, themselves.   Bell frames his presentation with an informed account of pre-revolutionary warfare: a game not so much for professionals but for aristocratic dabblers.  Plenty of people were killed or maimed in pre-revolutionary warfare, plenty of lives broken.  But warfare was still a desultory affair, for almost everyone a kind of part-time job. How different, then from the levĂ©e en masse of the early revolutionary era, where the logic of warfare became the logic of all against all.  Bell is particularly good on how the revolutionary leadership besotted itself with the example of the ancients, particularly the Roman Republic a world which (like warfare itself) they seem scarcely to have understood.

Allen moves on to an instructive if not particularly original, account of the career of Napoleon (but then, how could one hope to be original in telling the story of a figure as much studied, almost, as Lincoln or Jesus Christ?).   Although Bell isn't writing specifically military history, he does suggest the ways in which Napoleon assimilated the lessons of the new age.  But the perhaps the more relevant story is the account of Napoleon's unparalleled skill as a novelist of his own life--evidently he considered becoming a writer, back when it looked like his military career was going nowhere.  Again, Bell is not the first to notice (Andy Martin's instructive Napoleon the Novelist is in Bell's bibliography).  But he does a superb job of showing how Napoleon's self-imaging worked so well to carry him through the first phase of his career.  Indeed, informed by this background, we may say that Napoleon's problem after 1800 was that he couldn't figure out how to carry the story forward.  He couldn't justify his continued presence except in the event of continued warfare which became ever more costly and hazardous.  And by corollary, he was never able to sell himself to his "brother emperors" as a dues-paying member of the club--hence his humiliating exile--an imprisonment, really--to St.Helena after Waterloo.

But there is perhaps a third book tucked away early on, before Napoleon and before the revolutionary excess of the first warlike phase.  That is the account of the revolutionary debates in the immediate aftermath of 1789 as they try to figure out who they are, who the King is, what kind of "nation" they have become.  If it is not the role of the king to declare war, then what is a king for?  But if it is his role, why are we here?  The revolutionaries were still puzzling over that one when the King bolted and sought to escape the country, simplifying the choice for everybody.  I don't suppose it would much comfort him to know that he helped to write a critical chapter in the modern history of sovereignty.

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