A Bonaparte to Pick With You

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I don't normally get misty-eyed about the 200th anniversaries of stupid military invasions. But it is now a couple of centuries since Napoleon's expedition into Egypt fell apart completely. I feel it would be a shame if such memorable idiocy were to pass into darkness without a salute. The invasion of Egypt speaks to us even today. It is a vindication of the Mel Brooks version of history.

Napoleon was only 29 when he launched the invasion. A nasty, bourgeois knockoff of Alexander, the little Corsican hoped to conquer Egypt in a quick stroke. Why, exactly? Well, um.... to "liberate" it! Then he would proceed in triumph to Paris, depose the Directorate, take over France, and get on with ingesting the rest of the world. Napoleon was full of ideas.

But almost nothing went well. The Egyptians were not grateful to be liberated. Nelson happened by, and destroyed the entire French fleet in the Bay of Abukir off Alexandria, leaving Napoleon and his 36,000-man expedition stranded among scorpions and Mamelukes.

Napoleon sulked in Cairo. In France, his beloved, highly sexed wife, Josephine, was conducting an appallingly public affair with a young lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles. It was the talk of the army. Cuckolded, Napoleon fretted and gnashed his teeth. He sounded curiously helpless. "It's a sad situation," he wrote to his brother, "to have so many conflicting sentiments about a single person in one's heart."

Napoleon consoled himself by taking to bed the wife of one of his young lieutenants in Egypt; he dispatched the poor husband back to France on an "urgent secret mission." Napoleon set up housekeeping with the woman, arranged a quickie divorce for her, but then, some months later, breezily abandoned her by telling her one afternoon that he was off to Alexandria to check the fortifications. She never saw him again.

The Egyptian adventure deteriorated. The people of Cairo rose in general insurrection. Napoleon bombarded al-Azhar, the city's largest mosque, then sacked it and allowed his troops to run amok, killing men, women and children in the streets. The bloom was off the liberation. Napoleon sought glory northward, marching toward Syria. He took Jaffa. Four thousand prisoners, who had been promised their lives, were marched before Napoleon's tent; he asked peevishly, "What am I supposed to do with them?" They were herded to the beach and slaughtered in the surf.

Bonaparte laid siege to Acre but took a pounding and gave it up. Not for nothing was Napoleon the great-grandfather of spin. His official Army Bulletin proclaimed a great victory. When his secretary protested such a colossal lie, Napoleon said with a smile, "Mon cher, you are a simpleton. You really don't understand a thing."

Napoleon eventually scurried back to France, abandoning the remnants of his army to straggle home as best they could.

But he had managed to construct an entire parallel universe of lies, more real and more politically efficient than the truth. As the historian Alan Schom has written: "On returning to France... much to his utter astonishment, the thirty-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte found himself greeted by a madly exuberant French people who knew little of his phenomenal disasters and instead saw only the man who had captured Malta, the Pyramids, and Egypt, the latter-day republican crusader who had taken Cairo from the heathens..."

But wait: For all the spectacular folly of the Egyptian campaign, it ended by laying the foundations for extraordinary work in Egyptology, archaeology, and related fields. In the course of atrocious glory-hounding, Napoleon, who fancied himself an intellectual, had brought with him the best scholars of France. Their work, including the discovery and decoding of the Rosetta Stone, endures.

How glorious. How weird. Let us end the celebration with a chorus of Cole Porter:

    If Napoleon at Waterloo-la-la
    Had an army of debutantes
    To give the British the well known Oo-la-la,
    He'd have changed the history of France!