Thursday, August 22, 2013

Napoleon In Egypt

Book Frenzy continues! In the previous book review I mentioned the flaws with Ralph Sawyer's sort of explicit historicity in making his work somewhat dry to read (I even received a response from Sawyer, though that was tied to the omission of the Battle of Muye). However here we have a fine example of a converse of this; a book with extreme narrative qualities which endeavours to avoid actually making any significant point on either a historical or hypothetical basis. This just isn't a particularly stellar effort from the beloved Paul Strathern.

The popular historical narrative and understanding of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt is as follows: Napoleon arrives in Egypt, wins the Battle of the Pyramids due to technological and inherent tactical formation superiority. Nelson annihilates his fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon is from then on cut off from France. Bonaparte chills for a while and eventually finds the Rosetta stone spurring the massive resurgence of Egyptology (which directly caused the creation of the Stargate fiction, an achievement only attributable to Napoleon himself). Napoleon abandons his army and returns to Europe to much fanfare, forms the consulate and becomes essentially a dictator until his coronation as Emperor Napoleon I.

This leaves out quite a lot about the expedition, its original purpose and a whole lot of "what could have beens," however the key to Napoleon's "defeat" in Egypt is still the Battle of the Nile. Strathern seems to ignore this for the most part, alotting a brief section to that battle and a very short discussion of Nelson. The author treats both Napoleon and Nelson with some degree of disdain; Napoleon in 1798-1800 may not have been nominally the greatest commander in European history yet but he was still Napoleon so there has to be some discussion of his tactical merits and efficiencies. Instead Strathern focuses on just incredibly irrelevant things like his love life; this isn't a biography and Egypt wasn't a campaign of indiscretion as opposed to a military venture.

Nelson is hardly discussed outside of the chapters concerning the Battle of the Nile and there is absolutely no doubt that Nelson is the finest Naval commander in the history of the planet so this is again very bizarre. A step by step comparison of Nelson's practicality and efficiency compared with Napoleon's brilliance and sense of destiny could easily have been done but none such exists in this work. There is no single person more decisive in the failure of the Egyptian campaign than Horatio Nelson and he is barely discussed in this book; I can't really expand on how utterly foolish this is except to just point that out.

Every praise of Napoleon is limited to one or two sentences such as "Napoleon once again demonstrated his supreme caliber, both as a man and as a military leader" (p. 392) , it's anyone's guess what skill at being a man entails and telling us that Napoleon was a great general doesn't exactly inform the reader of anything he wasn't already aware of. Indeed the title of the book is such as to draw attention to Napoleon whereas the contents do essentially nothing but detract from him; his various victories during the Egyptian campaign are given short discussions with very little focus on the tactical merits of each conflict and essentially no elaboration on the composition and tactics of the opponent outside of the Battle of the Pyramids. I, with very little knowledge of this component of Napoleon's life, could easily assert various things in narrative fashion with regard to Napoleon's various victories over the Turkish and Mameluke forces and the tactical merits therein; and since this book is basically nothing but vague narrative assertions I fail to see how the author couldn't manage to produce anything of that sort.

Now, perhaps the most interesting and most celebrated parts of the Egyptian campaign are the exploits of the various savants brought along for the expedition; and indeed Strathern discusses these elements reasonably well. His background as a philosophy (a field for which I have the utmost respect) professor undoubtedly aids his portrayals of these various individuals and they're all pretty interesting to read about. The problem is this only entails about 20% of the book or so; so we've got maybe 10% of the book discussing Napoleon as a commander, 5% discussing Nelson, and 20% discussing the scientific merits of the campaign; what are we left with?

Strathern focuses uncannily on extremely minor players in this whole affair; a completely unheard of and indeed predominantly irrelevant classmate of Napoleon's is discussed at some length. This guy alongside Kleber and various other military figures are discussed at some length and given direct parallels to Napoleon (with only Nelson deserving any such comparison). While both Kleber and Desaix deserve at least a chapter to discuss their merits basically every one else the author focuses on is basically meaningless. The author's intense focus on Sir Sidney Smith upstages any discussion of Nelson; but Smith doesn't actually do anything decisive over the course of the campaign. The siege of Acre fails, however Napoleon's roughly 10,000 strong force at that point would have been unable to do anything particularly aggressive in either the direction of Istanbul or India; he was under provisioned and simply undermanned for any such expedition; thanks in large part to the Battle of the Nile's destruction of his fleet. If anything taking Acre would merely have prolonged Napoleon's stay in the Orient and thus lessened his impact in France; effectively Sir Sidney's tactical (but in no way decisive) victory partially led to France's domination of Europe for 14 years.

 However the author insists on emphasizing the siege of Acre and the subsequent retreat; but the problem is a siege is a largely attritive process which entails little or no tactical brilliance. If you besiege a numerically superior force chances are you'll lose said siege; now if Sidney Smith had led a heroic charge to break the French army immediately following one of the failed Grenadier charges or something that would be impressive and worth extensive discussion; Smith would prove himself at least on some level on par with Napoleon. But he didn't, Napoleon simply ran out of the necessary materials for continuing the siege and retreated; it wasn't a loss of his army; no Austerlitz or Jena-Auerstadt was inflicted upon him (nor was there ever such a situation); the defeat was not due to any prevailing failure on his part apart from misjudging the abilities of 10-15,000 men on an extended campaign in unfamiliar territory; a recurring fault in Napoleon's logic.

Overall I just can't recommend this book on any level; while I'm still really interested in the campaign in Egypt there's only about 100 of the 400+ pages worth reading; the rest is irrelevant tripe pretty much. This is a bit scathing of a review I will grant; but I do think if you're going to discuss Napoleon on any level other than Biographic you need to discuss what can be learned from his tactical shrewdness. Similarly any chance to discuss Nelson's revolutionary and innovative methods on the Naval front quite simply must be emphasized; because unlike Napoleon (who has various historical parallels) there is no one even close to achieving the level of success that Horatio Nelson did on the seas. This just isn't a book that should be written by a philosophy professor unless he explicitly has some understanding of military tactics or alternatively wanted to discuss at great length the scientific aspects of both the campaign and Napoleon's approach to governing the Egyptian intellectual institute.

Edit: A sort of academic inspection of one thought process in this book: "...all in the vain attempt to impose European civilization upon a backward people whose religion encouraged them to regard all change and all foreigners with the deepest suspicion." This sentence is fine except for the one word "backward," which implies an inherent superiority on the part of Europeans. This is the sort of thing that would be common 100 years ago or more but nowadays people are generally prescient of the fact that no culture is inherently "superior." While the various misogynistic traditions discussed in the book can certainly be condemned in no way can you proclaim that the entire civilization is "backward." It's hard to say what he specifically wants to say here but the point is certainly undermined by the diction.

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