From Austerlitz To Moscow


A dreadful prospect opened up for mankind when Napoleon’s Grande Armée won the battle of Austerlitz and swept on to conquer all of Europe. The enthusiastic multitudes of revolutionary France had placed at Napoleon’s disposal the resources of an entire nation, and he had fashioned from them a mighty new weapon: the mass citizen army, the Grande Armée. War was no longer a game for kings and small hired armies; it had become a cataclysm into which entire nations were hurled. The scale of war was henceforth to be set by the total population, productivity, and determination of nations, not by the limited resources of the king’s treasury. We had entered the era of mass war, of total war, of mindless attrition that threatened to drown the most advanced societies in their own blood.

From Austerlitz (1805) to the signing of the SALT agreements in Moscow (1972), the new warfare claimed over 84,000,000 lives in epic struggles fought to exhaustion by the world’s most energetic peoples. Until 1945 there was no reason to believe that this massive inverse Darwinism would ever come to an end, and until 1945 the only role America played in the general slaughter was that of the perennial latecomer who arrived in the thick of things and then promptly went home again as soon as the interwar armistice was declared.

But in the last two months of World War II, another abrupt escalation in the scale of warfare was born of revolution-this time the scientific revolution of the twentieth century. The advent of nuclear weapons made the destructiveness of international violence suddenly a thousand times greater. Before ten years had passed, the development of the hydrogen bomb would multiply all this a thousand times more. The United States was no longer safe in splendid isolation behind its oceans; it was forced to come out into the world and deal directly with the awesome challenge of the nuclear age.

We get cheated out of success stories in this democratic life. V V When our votes are needed to start some project, or when our efforts must be spurred on to get it completed, the air is filled with shrieks of alarm and predictions of imminent disaster. There seems no practical alternative to this chronic verbal overkill in our public dialogue, so that we rarely hear anything but the voice of Cassandra. When at long last our efforts have been successful, nobody has any vested interest in telling us about it.

We need more progress reports. This is a progress report. It begins with the carnage wrought by 160,000 men at a small Czechoslovakian town called Austerlitz, and it ends with the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty at a large Russian town called Moscow. It reports what two generations of Americans have achieved by way of solving two problems that couldn’t possibly be exaggerated, however diligent the bureaucrat responsible for ballyhooing them. The one that confronted us after the first nuclear bomb test in July, 1945, was the threat of impersonal violence completely beyond human scale. The one that had been brewing for over a century before that was a threat akin to the periodic stampede of the lemmings over Scandinavian cliffs-and some of the characteristics of this total “conventional” warfare were worse than those of the looming nuclear age. It threatened to destroy our lives every bit as much in conventional peacetime as it did in conventional war. It was well on its way to forcing us back to cave-man ethics, to tribal culture, to the preoccupations and goals of the ant heap-and all in a sincere attempt to protect us. It was to make every nation’s defense impregnable that the world’s military and political leaders toiled through the decades to master the new warfare. But things kept going wrong, and the traps they fell into were mocking foreshadowings of the traps lying in wait in the nuclear age. It is with their efforts and the story of what went wrong that our progress report must begin.


After the violent enthusiasms of the French Revolution had spent themselves on battlefields from Austerlitz to Waterloo, the world’s general staffs returned to their drawing boards to pattern their nations’ military systems after Napoleon’s spectacular invention. By mid-nineteenth century it was time for field testing, and the proving ground turned out to be the United States. The mobilization of a huge citizen army was to determine the outcome of the bloodiest war in U.S. history, for it was the vast conveyor belt that moved farmers and clerks into the front lines of the Civil War that was the decisive weapon at General Grant’s disposal. The quality of tactics and armament favored the South, but the North’s massive mobilization-of manpower and cannon-crushed by its very weight the smaller Confederate forces. By the time the fateful year of 1914 rolled around, every European nation worth its salt had put together its own conveyor belt and connected it up into a continent-sized meat grinder. A half-dozen Grande Armées were now poised to hurl themselves into an intricately balanced stalemate.

The meat grinder came equipped with its own on-off switch. The off-switch was, of course, total exhaustion-of blood and industry. It is hardly surprising that no one paid much public attention to it.