Editor’s Note: Why should stock market investors care about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia?
Or the fate of General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn?
Or the sinking of the Titanic?
Because as Bill explains below, every disaster carries with it an important warning.
I was in Paris when the end of the world came.
My company there, Les Belles Lettres, has been publishing the Greek and Latin classics there since 1919. We’ve translated about 900 of the 1,200 texts that still exist. It seemed a shame that the world would end before we completed our work.
So, I went into the office, where, amid a thick blue fog, I found Caroline – the CEO – energetically working her way through a carton of Marlboros.
She was determined to go out doing the two things she loved most: promoting Aristotle and chain-smoking at her desk – screw the workplace tobacco ban; they can fine me in hell!
Impressed with her attitude, I considered writing a nasty letter to the IRS. Maybe I’d park in a handicapped spot while I was at it…
But first I needed to get coffee.
At the nearby “café bar bistro,” however, there was no mention of the impending apocalypse. Apparently, management had decided to continue serving coffee right through the end of the world.
Servi kaffe, pereat mundus.
I looked at my watch. It was 11 a.m., the supposed ETA of our apocalypse. We were all still there.
I was perplexed. Could it be that the Mayans were just as thick as the rest of us? Was it all just meaningless guesswork? What if their chief astrologer was one of Paul Krugman’s ancestors?
Then it hit me: The Mayans were based in South America. They probably used Eastern Standard Time!
But 11 a.m. EST rolled around, and the world was no more destroyed. Caroline tossed her empty carton in the trash and sighed. The cosmos had spared us.
That’s the trouble with natural disasters. They never quite show up when they’re supposed to. And for card-carrying doom and gloomers like me, they are a source of much disappointment.
Man-made disasters, on the other hand, are not only far more frequent, but also far more predictable. They’re also extremely entertaining… assuming, of course, you’re into that sort of thing.
Take, for instance, one of the worst military campaigns in history: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
Up until then, Napoleon’s career had been a spectacular success. He could seemingly get away with anything. By the time the French senate proclaimed him emperor in 1804, he was already regarded as the greatest military genius who had ever lived.
So when he decided to invade Russia, no one blinked…
No one besides Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s long-time aide-de-camp, that is. He knew better. He had been to Russia. Napoleon had sent him there as the French ambassador.
He knew invading Russia was a bad idea. He warned Napoleon of the terrible weather, the bad roads and the savage people. He begged him not to go. It would be the ruin of France, he said.
Napoleon ignored him… and a few months later, there they both were – freezing their rear ends off as they fled the smoldering ruins of Moscow.
We have a chart in our library at home that shows what happened next. It records the temperature dropping to -30°C, as the size of the French army dropped along with it. Soldiers burned down barns to try to get warm, but many of them froze.
The Russian army shot many of those who survived the cold; still others were attacked by partisans on the roads, packs of wolves in the forests, and prisoners the czar had released into the city streets.
If that didn’t get them, they starved to death. Napoleon entered Russia with 300,000 troops. Only 10,000 got out.
I told this story to my kids over and over again as they were growing up. I can tell you with some confidence that it has had beneficial effects. None of my children will ever invade Russia. They won’t make that mistake!
Knowledge of Napoleon’s 19th-century disaster didn’t dissuade Adolf Hitler from repeating it in the 20th century on a larger scale. And Hitler was certainly aware of the dangers. The famous German war strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote extensively on Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion.
August von Kageneck’s history of the German army’s 18th regiment on the Eastern Front in War War II contains a delightful anecdote to this end.
The regiment had been annihilated, rebuilt and annihilated again. Finally, near the end of the war, the Russians captured the remnants of it.
A Soviet interrogator with a sense of humor posed a question to the survivors: “Haven’t any of you ever read von Clausewitz?” None of the prisoners raised his hand.
Why do these disasters happen? That’s what I set out to explore in Hormegeddon. To use the words of the Scottish poet Bobby Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men “gang aft agley.”
Is that Scots dialect? I don’t know. But the sense of it is probably best captured in the old Navy expression: go FUBAR. The last three letters of that mean “beyond all recognition.” The first two, I will leave you to figure out for yourself.
History is a long tale of things that went FUBAR – debacles, disasters and catastrophes. That is what makes it fun to study. And maybe even useful. Each disaster carries with it a warning.
For example, if the Sioux have assembled a vast war party out on the plains, don’t put on your best uniform and ride out to the Little Bighorn to have a look.
If the architect of a great ship tells you that “not even God himself could sink this ship,” take the next boat!
When you are up against a superior enemy – like Fabius Maximus against Hannibal – don’t engage in battle. Instead, delay… procrastinate… dodge him… wear him down… until you are in a better position.
And if the stock market is selling at 20 times earnings… and all your friends, analysts and experts urge you to “get in” because you “can’t lose” – it’s time to get out!