Marching Toward Waterloo

Today’s tyrants and dictators (both established and aspiring) are about to face the same enemy that really defeated Napoleon – and it wasn’t an opposing army.

Everyone knows that Napoleon met his final defeat in the Battle of Waterloo. In reality, though, that was just the end of a decline that started a few years earlier, when his seemingly invincible army was crushed by the one foe no army or tyrant can defeat: mother nature.

In 1812, Napoleon was close to conquering all of Europe. He needed Russia’s help to bring Britain to its knees – but Russia wasn’t cooperating. Napoleon’s modus operandi for grabbing and holding on to power was simple: overwhelming military might. So, Napoleon decided to invade and conquer Russia, to force them to do his bidding. To that end, he assembled the largest army the world had ever seen: more than half a million men. That made his army about three times the size of Russia’s. Given Napoleon’s track record for military conquest, Russia seemed sure to become the latest takedown on his list.

In early summer Napoleon’s mighty army began marching toward Russia. By the time his army returned to France in December – without a Russian surrender – more than 95 percent of his army had died or deserted. Napoleon’s army was gone, along with his aura of invincibility. Napoleon’s “sure thing” Russian campaign had turned into a disaster. Only a few years later, after a period of exile, he attempted to return to power. That ended with his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Napoleon’s Russian campaign was a disaster because the Russians adopted a brilliant strategy: they prevented him from taking full advantage of his one, unbeatable strategy – overwhelming military force. When he invaded Russia, instead of meeting his army in battle, the Russian army simply kept retreating. In addition, they left behind cities and farm fields that were burnt to the ground, depriving Napoleon’s army of resources like food and shelter. During the summer months, as the army marched deeper into Russia, insect-borne diseases began to sicken Napoleon’s tired and underfed army.

There was only one major battle in Russia, which took place near Moscow in September. It lasted one day, killing more than 70,000 soldiers. But after the battle the Russians resumed their retreat, and no surrender was ever forthcoming. When the weather finally began to turn cold, with no surrender from the Russians, Napoleon had no choice but to turn back. Unfortunately for Napoleon’s army, it required months of marching to return to France, and there was an early and brutal Russian winter. With no food to be had, his remaining, starving army, not equipped for the brutal winter weather, was decimated. Only one-twentieth of the army he started out with made it back.

The Russian refusal to fight Napoleon on his terms could have ended differently, except for one thing: It left Napoleon’s army fighting the one enemy that overwhelming military force is powerless against: nature. Put simply, the Russians forced Napoleon to fight nature instead of their army. And no tyrant, no matter how powerful – and regardless of his strategy for gaining and holding onto power – wins in a battle against nature.

There are four main strategies tyrants tend to rely on to increase and protect their power: 1) military might; 2) threat of annihilation; 3) bribery and coercion; and 4) using a tidal wave of lies and misinformation to spread and reinforce bogus beliefs and ideas. However, all of these strategies become useless when nature unleashes its power. Extreme droughts, floods, epidemics and countless other natural phenomena have all brought down tyrants.

As Napoleon discovered, military might is no match for brutal cold, famine or disease. The Plague of Justinian in 541 A.D., which is thought to have killed at least 5 million people, is believed to have helped cause the downfall of the Roman Empire, just as Justinian the First was trying to recreate the empire’s former glory. Threatening annihilation was the main tactic used during the Cold War between the USSR and America; but when a cost-cutting design choice led to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, the radioactivity that was unleashed required such a colossal amount of resources to contain (in order to prevent a global catastrophe) that according to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leader at the time, it caused the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.

Today, because of the technology-driven nature of modern culture, the more blatant military threats used to gain and hold onto power in the past are not nearly as popular among the most high-profile tyrants. (Of course, some smaller-scale tyrants still rely on those tactics.) Today, tyrants like to pretend they’re democratic leaders; they rely on bribery, coercion, propaganda and misinformation to maintain the illusion. In fact, the most popular strategy used by tyrants today is encouraging the populace to have certaintyabout a set of false beliefs that serves the tyrant’s purposes. They then create a tidal wave of lies – preferably with the help of a massive media machine – that supports that certainty. Certainty about a set of beliefs is a powerful weapon, because people are blinded by certainty. They don’t see what’s really going on – even if it’s happening right in front of them – and they readily make choices based on their certainty that are not in their own best interests.

But guess what: Lies, disinformation and bogus beliefs are no more effective against mother nature than military force. In fact, when a tyrant lies about a natural disaster because it isn’t helping his cause, it only escalates the impact of the disaster – and it may actually expose his followers to the worst effects of the catastrophe. Nevertheless, when faced with a natural disaster tyrants are likely to continue using the strategy that’s always worked for them, just the way Napoleon did. (Tyrants are blinded by certainty, too!) Today, that means they continue to lie and spread disinformation. The eventual result of sticking with that strategy will be a massive loss of power and credibility, and just like Napoleon’s soldiers, the tyrant’s followers will pay the price. They’ll end up decimated by a foe far more powerful than any real or imagined political opponent.

Today, mother nature is getting more and more ferocious, for numerous reasons – not the least of which is climate change. As droughts, floods, storms and yes, pandemics, become increasingly common, tyrants are going to find it impossible to maintain their grip on power. The strategies that have helped them accumulate power and wealth will become obvious for all to see, and they’ll become useless. In many cases their strategies will badly backfire, hastening their downfall.

Today, we’re in the midst of catastrophic change. It’s scary to live in such a time, but history suggests that huge positive changes may be triggered by catastrophic events. In fact, I think there’s good reason to believe that people will someday look back on this time as the point in history at which tyranny finally came to an end, once and for all. And what about you and me? Our job is to make it through the hardships that accompany such events, and do what we can to ensure that the world emerges from this crisis a better place than it was before.