[Note for Tomdispatch readers: With this post, I will “vacate” Tomdispatch until Tuesday September 4th. Expect a new post that day. For readers in Washington DC, after checking out the following post by the incomparable Juan Cole, if you have a spare summer moment, rush to the New America Foundation and hear him speak on Friday the 24th at noon.]
It was the highest-tech military of its moment and its invasion of the Arab land was overwhelming. Enemy forces were smashed, the oppressive ruling regime overthrown, the enemy capital occupied, and the country declared liberated… then the first acts of insurgency began…
George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003? No, Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in June 1798. There are times when the resonances of history are positively eerie. This happens to be one of them. We all deserve a history lesson about the Napoleonic beginnings of our present catastrophe. (Too bad you-know-who didn’t get one before ordering that March 2003 invasion.) I got mine from a man whose blog, Informed Comment, I read every morning without fail and whose flow of commentary on Bush’s war in Iraq has been invaluable. I’m talking, of course, about Juan Cole who (evidently in his spare moments) has completed a history of the Napoleonic moment of “spreading democracy” to Arab lands, just published as Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.
Some of the parallels are enough to make you jump out of your chair (if not your skin). For instance, Napoleon wrote a letter to one of his generals, well into the occupation, forbidding the beating of insurgents to extract information: “It has been recognized at all times that this manner of interrogating human beings, of putting them under torture, produces nothing good.” Okay, at least Napoleon could learn from experience, an ability our President seems to lack, but the issue, put that way, rings a terrible bell 200 years later.
Napoleon’s Egyptian moment lasted a mere three years. We are already into our fifth year in devolving Iraq with no obvious end in sight. Last Sunday, the New York Times printed a remarkable op-ed by an Army specialist, four sergeants, and two staff sergeants of the 82nd Airborne Division, now on duty in Iraq (one of whom was shot in the head while the piece was being prepared). In it, they wrote, “Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal… [W]e are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.” Of the military mission of which they are a part they wrote: “In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.”
Whether these soldiers know the history of Bonaparte in Egypt or not, they have grasped the essence of what lurks behind the fine liberatory words of the leaders of the republic militant. Let’s hope it’s not too late to learn the lesson of Napoleon and slip out of “Egypt,” while it’s still possible. Though it hardly scratches the surface of his new book, here is a little taste from the Napoleonic lesson plan of Juan Cole. Tom
Pitching the Imperial Republic
Bonaparte and Bush on Deck
By Juan Cole