Michael Seeley: What Are Wars Good For Anymore? Not for Plunder, At Least.

Michael Seeley is a senior at Augustana College in South Dakota and was co-recipient of a Peace Prize Forum scholarship in 2011.

Nearly two centuries ago, on October 23, 1812, France momentarily fell into the hands of a lunatic, General Claude François de Malet. Ironically, madman Malet’s plans for France were more attuned to the emerging economic realities of the day than were those of the emperor that he hoped to depose, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Having slipped from the unguarded window of his Parisian insane asylum in the dead of night, Malet hurried home, where his wife equipped him with his uniform and weapons. Once more wearing the gold braid of command and reunited with co-conspirators, he rushed to the nearest barracks of the National Guard and shook the local militia colonel awake. Thrusting forged papers into the colonel’s hand, Malet cried that Napoleon had been killed in Moscow and that the Senate had appointed him head of the new government. The colonel complied with his new leader’s request for soldiers and roused more than a thousand troops to assemble in the street. Malet immediately used his new army to arrest the men in charge of government during Napoleon’s absence in Russia; the madman planned to round up the remaining leaders, oust the Emperor, reinstitute republicanism, and save France from the costly and disastrous war against Russia.

Had the coup succeeded, France might have been thrust back onto a path of peace and perhaps even long-term political stability. Malet’s good intentions, however, fell victim to Malet’s madness. When the authenticity of his documents was questioned, Malet shot the Prefect of Paris in the face. The confidence of his soldiers in his leadership and sanity thus shaken, the coup quickly unraveled, and within days Malet had been arrested, tried, and shot by firing squad.

The coup against him thwarted before he even knew of the attempt, Napoleon pressed his ill-fated attack against Russia. Later analysts questioned Napoleon’s decision to expand his empire into the vast Asiatic steppes but it is clear that the Emperor had little choice. Given Russia’s blatant disregard for France’s economic blockade of Britain, Napoleon needed to seal off Continental markets if he was to succeed in his attempt to strangle the British economy and war machine. Moreover, empires throughout history have grown by seizing resources from conquered peoples. Napoleon forged the French Empire from the same mold. French navies could never oust Britain from the high seas, but on the Continent, France’s skilled Corsican general seized numerous countries with relative ease and extracted sizeable reparation promises from them.

Excluding the seizure of moveable assets of indiscernible value, such as the vast number of art works taken from Italy to found the Louvre, French acquisitions from foreign nations between 1799 and 1814 has been estimated at 785 million francs. Between 1806 and 1809 alone, France forced Prussia and Austria to promise it 350 and 515 million francs, respectively — massive sums by any account. Napoleon, however, was only able to collect less than half of the payments.

In debt from previous campaigns, cut off from overseas trade by the British blockade, and unable to raise additional taxes at home, Napoleonic France suffered from a sort of military “bubble”: it had to invade new territories in order to survive. In the long run, however, attempting to fund a government with military conquests did not pay; the conquer-and-collect strategy proved unsustainable. Modern economic growth was changing the old formula. By the early nineteenth century, wealth increasingly lay in human capital, in knowing how to add value in manufacturing and services, rather than in land, minerals, or precious metals and gems. The latter can be seized and exploited but the former dry up if abused. Unsurprisingly, economically liberal Britain and its allies prevailed.

Whether he fully understood the implications of his plan or not, Malet was on to something. A military bubble like that suffered by Napoleonic France is unlikely today because now conquerors pay the conquered rather than the reverse. The paradigm shifted decisively in the twentieth century. After World War I, the victorious Allies sought reparations from Germany but managed only to cripple the German economy and pave the way for fascism. Unwilling to repeat that mistake after World War II, the United States infused billions to restore the economies of Germany, Italy, and Japan lest they fall to communism.

The United States continues to pay its defeated enemies, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of filling its war chest with the indemnities of the conquered foe, the United States has flipped the moneybox open to watch the contents spill out into oil rich Iraq. While figures about the total cost of the war vary, every account places it in the trillions of dollars. Despite huge government fiscal deficits and dire domestic economic problems, U.S. taxpayers have been improving Iraqi infrastructure, governance, health, and security systems. The new paradigm of paying conquered nations now appears as defunct as the old system of stealing from them, so the U.S. government’s strategies in Iraq seem as outdated as Napoleon’s in Russia. When and how an even newer paradigm will arise remains unclear.

Hopefully, it will not require a coup attempt by a madman.

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