In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will (Matt Damon) meets Sean Maguire played by Robin Williams for the first time. They talk books. Will has a recommendation for Sean:
“United States of America: A Complete History, Volume l. Jesus. If you wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History in the United States. That book’ll f****** knock you on your ass.”
I didn’t read United States of America: A Complete History or Howard Zinn’s book. But I did read The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty. This book knocked me on my ass.
Of the Libro 52 Challenge books I’ve read thus far – this is the best.
The book revolves around Napolean’s 1812 campaign into Russia and the role typhus played in the saga.
You have probably seen this map before; it’s widely regarded as the best statistical graphic ever drawn. For people who evaluate statistical graphics… apparently this is the cat’s pajamas.
It depicts Napolean’s Grande Armée leaving with um… an army of soldiers (600K) and returning through the Russian winter with much, much fewer (60K). The reality that underpins The Illustrious Dead is a mere 25% of the 540K men who died did so on the battlefield. The rest died from typhus, cold, hunger or thirst.
But this isn’t merely a war book.
It’s lessons are numerous.
The remarkable extent of human suffering.
The Illustrious Dead illuminates the rise of Napoleon and his accomplishments. Today Napoleon is largely known for being an egotistical little warmonger. But consider this: Upon conquering the better part of Europe, Napoleon would then recruit, motivate and integrate the defeated army into the ranks of the Grande Armée.
This would be akin to the U.S. invading Afghanistan, defeating them and then absorbing their entire armed forces as we rally towards Iran. Following that victory, we win the Iranian hearts and minds and they join our ranks under the American flag as we head towards North Korea.
You get the idea.
To pull this off time and again as you barnstorm a continent, you must be good. Real good. Just look at this roster of the Grande Armée in 1812, prior to leaving France.
• 95,000 Poles
• 35,000 Austrians
• 30,000 Italians
• 24,000 Bavarians
• 20,000 Saxons
• 20,000 Prussians
• 17,000 Westphalians
• 15,000 Swiss
• 3,500 Croats
The greatest tribute to Napoleon’s brilliant hold on France is that he led the largest and strongest fighting force on Earth into battle and 12 months later 90% were dead. Yet few questioned his leadership. Even more staggering, the 10% of the army that was left still believed in Napoleon wholeheartedly.
The fascinating aspect of the role typhus played in the decimation of Nap’s army is this was a bit of déjà vu. Years before, as a malaria epidemic slayed hundreds of Frenchmen daily, Napoleon scrapped his plans for American expansion by handing Thomas Jefferson the greatest gift of his life: the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the US at that point.
The price of Napoleon’s sunk cost in the US?
Less than 3 cents an acre for the 828,000 square miles stretching from Louisiana to Montana.
Talty weaves together an impressive historical account whose threads include insights into Russia, France, England, and America. Numerous times throughout the book I had to remind myself this was a work of non-fiction. This truth is more amazing than a fictitious account could ever be.
Bottom Line: Read this book. It‘ll take you on a incredible ride and make you smarter.
Bradley Hartmann is El Presidente at Red Angle (www.redanglespanish.com). He’s reading 52 books this year. He’s ahead of schedule on the reading… a little behind on the writing.
16. The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty
Categories: Libro 52 Challenge