The French Revolution, Iraq and the Lessons of History

First there was moral clarity. From moral clarity came self-righteousness and supreme self-confidence. Then came arrogance, and out of arrogance came the waging of aggressive war.

Such is the story of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, as told in a recent book by David Bell, titled The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It.” The book's themes are summarized in two articles, in the New York Times Magazine of February 4 and the New Yorker of February 12.

Bell points out that in the century or so prior to the French Revolution, warfare was relatively restrained. Wars during that period were bloody enough, to be sure, but they were waged in pursuit of limited aims and in accordance with aristocratic guidelines that downplayed bloody mass encounters.

Enlightenment thinkers during this time wanted to progress even further. They saw war as unnatural, and they proclaimed the ideal of universal, absolute peace.

This ideal was taken up by the French Revolutionaries in the National Assembly, who renounced aggressive war in their “declaration of peace.”

Nevertheless, Revolutionary France was surrounded by enemies. If they were not defeated, the Revolutionary government and all its gains would be lost.

So the moral imperative was clear: France’s republican government was the one truly and absolutely just government. It must be defended by whatever means necessary.

Furthermore, republicanism was the natural form of government, desired by all peoples. Therefore France’s armies, upholding republican government, would be greeted as liberators by the inhabitants of any nation they moved against. And that would be the end of warfare.

So, convinced of their righteousness and supremely confident of victory, the French armies waged war to preserve republicanism in France and to spread it throughout Europe. Their absolute ends called for absolute means to achieve those ends. The Revolutionary government inaugurated mass conscription and mobilized the entire country for battles that would be far bloodier than those of the previous century, because they were confident that – in the words of one of their generals – “This war will be the last war.”

But of course it was not the last war. The wars continued. Soon Napoleon took charge, first as Revolutionary general and then as Emperor. For over 20 years France engaged in total aggressive warfare, marked by atrocities not only in Spain, Italy and other foreign countries, but even in France itself, against those – most notably in the Vendée region – who rose up against the Revolution.

The quest for total peace had brought total war in its most horrific form.


Does this sound familiar? It should

Remember “moral clarity?” Remember how the Bush administration gloried in it as they declaimed against terrorism (“You’re either with us or against us!”)?

You can see where Bush’s moral clarity has led us merely by reading the newspapers. But it’s worthwhile to see the parallels between his unilateral adventurism and the French Revolution.

There are differences of course – for example, the Iraq War is being fought by paid professionals, not by conscripts. And Bush is no Napoleon. But there are also striking similarities; for example, Robespierre (before he became the villain of the Terror) pointed out that “No one loves armed missionaries.”

We find the same self-righteousness and supreme self-confidence (“It will be a slam-dunk”) in both cases. We find the same arrogance toward the opinions and customs of the rest of the world. We find unintended consequences in both cases.


The French Revolution is a cautionary tale; would that the Bush administration had heeded it.

And for the future, there are clear lessons as we prepare to junk the Bush administration and formulate a wiser, more justifiable foreign policy. Be skeptical of moral clarity. Beware of absolutes. The world is a complex place, not amenable to the black-white thinking that absolutes present to us.

And especially, throw aside unilateralism for once and for all. There are two reasons to cooperate with the other nations of the world. One is practical and superficial: We need their help.

The other reason is more profound: We must avoid the self-righteousness, the fatuous over-confidence, and the arrogance that tends to accompany our preeminent position in the world. We need a moral compass, and the most effective moral compass is that provided by other nations.

Think of Afghanistan and think of Iraq. The world’s compass needle pointed toward the former, away from the latter. Think how much better off we would be now if Bush had followed in that direction.

The desire for multilateralism may seem to be mere liberal sentimentality until we look at history. The French Revolution gives us a solid example of the perils that lie along the path of solitary arrogance. The same lesson has unfolded in Iraq. We need to take it to heart.





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Volume 3, Issue 6, Posted 3:12 PM, 03.09.2007