The real Napoleon syndrome

Even if Napoleon Bonaparte had been shorter than the average Frenchman of his day (he wasn’t), and even if he had used warfare to compensate for his self-perceived short-comings (he didn’t), and even if short men today were more aggressive than taller men (they aren’t), the phrase “Napoleon syndrome” would still be more beneficially used to describe a different phenomenon. This:


When Napoleon set off to conquer Russia in the summer of 1812, his Grande Armée consisted of nearly 700,000 men. Six months later, a force of just 30,000 sick and starving men arrived back in France. The exact numbers are still debated, but no one questions the magnitude of the French disaster in Russia.

What happened?

The Russian Army killed a good many French soldiers. Russian civil authorities evacuated Moscow and destroyed their food stocks so that by the time Napoleon arrived to “conquer” the city, there was nearly no city left to conquer.

Napoleon ordered a full retreat just as the terrible Russian winter began. With no grain or grass, the horses died. Eating and drinking whatever they could find, some of the retreating soldiers fell ill. In such close quarters, disease spread rapidly and killed many. The soldier’s boots fell apart on the long march back across Russia. Men became crippled by frostbite and died from starvation or simple froze to death.

In France and Russia, the story goes, people debated the true cause of Napoleon’s debacle.

To a French soldier, it was a failure of military strategy.

To a Russian soldier, it was the heroic spirit of the troops.

To Russian government officials, it was the brilliantly executed evacuation of Moscow.

To a meteorologist, it was the winter.

To an epidemiologist, it was poor sanitation and a lack of hygene.

And to a cobbler, it was a lack of proper footwear.

That’s the real Napoleon syndrome — the tendency of people (and groups) to focus exclusively on the area that concerns them, excluding or minimize anything that falls outside of that small circle of knowledge.


I’ve noticed this syndrome lately in discussions of solar power. I think Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) holds great promise for generating electricity. But calling it, “The technology that will save humanity,” as an article in Salon recently did?

Pardon my French, but, Jeez, Louise!

That’s the flip-side of another piece on CSP, discussed here recently, with the title “Is Solar Power Dead in the Water?”

A bill that just passed in the Arizona Senate (SB 1403) calls for tax incentives to attract manufacturers of renewable energy products, mostly solar. Anti-tax zealots have attacked the idea (sponsored by pro-growth Republicans), saying that government involvement always distorts the market — as if the market is a level playing field to begin with, and a sacred one at that, operating always for the best in this best of all possible worlds. (NB: please ignore current market meltdown caused by a lack of government oversight).

We are facing complex issues of energy production in a world where human-caused climate chaos is a reality,where water resources are dwindling after more than a century of profligacy — and with all the usual divisions and hostilities of race, religion, class and gender.

That’s the take-home lesson of the Napoleon syndrome: we can’t afford to be a world of cobblers insisting that all problems, and all solutions, are a simple matter of footwear. It’s a bit more complicated.

The technology that will save humanity

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