Did he say it?
Or have the words been put into a famous mouth for assured longevity?
For argument’s sake, let’s assume Napoleon Bonaparte did say it. That an army marches on its belly. Or something to that effect.
He would have known, this man who gave us Austerlitz. Military strategist. Commander. Audacious Capablanca of campaign chessboards. He of astonishing ability who conjured up victories from imminent defeat.
But why bring him up now?
One immediate reason is Bonaparte died last month (on May 5) 199 years ago; why grudge him a token anniversary mention? He was a fascinating character, even if a bit fractured. Revolution’s child who ended up proclaiming himself emperor.
But that’s part of the reason. It’s his purported utterance that has come back to define a burgeoning predicament of the present.
Huge invading armies no longer march these days as they once did — they have been replaced by migrant armies of survival economics. Therein lies the twist: there is little economics now for them to survive.
Hunger has hit them hard. Like it did Bonaparte’s army years ago on the foodless Russian landscape of 1812.
The Grande Armee had returned home, a starving, bedraggled 20,000-odd from the four lakh that had set off in that summer of profligate promise. What hunger can do.
Raw, physical, gnawing hunger that eats at your entrails like a corrosive secretion. Something very similar has been playing out on today’s contagion-hit landscape. Why else would anyone attempt to pedal a thousand kilometres home, or walk under a sapping sun, and then drop dead? Exhaustion can be deadly on an empty stomach. What hunger can do.
It’s been happening, to the sturdy and the not-so sturdy; to the young, and the not-so young, disabled on kindred shoulders, all impelled on to pitiless streets towards, if not death, then debilitation. All anonymous collaterals of sudden workless containment that has imperilled lives and wiped out already precarious livelihoods across the world in a continuing nightmare.
Seldom have differences in time and backdrop had such similarity in consequence.
An authoritarian 19th century military general marshalling his army to hunger. Foot soldiers of modern-day economy propelled on their own, unprepared towards deprivation.
Bonaparte had been “contained” because of his ambition: the catalytic role he had played, in the gamble of history’s forces.
Two hundred years on, people have been “contained” within a framework of despair: an unspeakable biopolitic of “contamination”.
Somewhere, a mother threw her five children, one by one, into a river. Feeding them was becoming a strain.
A report, early this month, said people were queuing up at Trafalgar Square every day. For food. In normal times, the central London landmark — built to commemorate Britain’s 1805 naval victory in the Napoleonic wars — teems with tourists. What hunger can do.
India’s government has since introduced special trains for migrant workers, stepping in to lessen their suffering. But thousands had already hit the road by then.
That damned, wretched belly is such a nuisance. To unaccustomed eyes. To genteel eyes long used to looking away. Won’t even let people forget.
Bonaparte would have gone through it, the incalculable folly of it all, as he trudged back to France that desolate winter.
It was the beginning of his personal lockdown — still nearly three years away on the island of Saint Helena — but heading towards him inexorably, like a shadow rising to meet him.
Some called him vain, a genius gone mad. But in his heyday, most deferred to his genius. To his adherents he was the son of the Revolution.
Bonaparte was perhaps all that — and more. How else does one explain his pre-Waterloo return from exile?
But the emperor’s time was up — like all emperor’s before him and those who came later; assorted czars, generalissimos, Kaisers and Fuhrer, whose time would be up too one day.
Still, Bonaparte’s passing was excruciatingly disappointing: like a promise that had conned itself. Another general trapped in his labyrinth.
There’s something intrinsically human about the number 99, whether it’s report cards or anniversaries. The moment they turn a century the date overtakes the man. Wow! 100 years. 200 years. 400 years.
The No. 99 has a romance to it. On the cusp of landmark but not quite. Utterly human. Incredible possibilities but brilliantly flawed.
Like our hero, the Little Corporal from Corsica who once couldn’t bear the odious sight of thirty thousand Frenchmen “vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood”.
By December 1793, however, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general in the French army on a quirky wave, swept up in a favourable cocktail of post-Revolution politics and providence.
In another six years he would be elected First Consul, the undeclared head of an authoritarian centralised government. Just 30 he was.
By December 1804, he had crowned himself emperor, in the presence of the Pope. The child of the French Revolution had come a long way.
March 1811 completed the Revolution’s last rites — for the moment at least. A dynast was born: Bonaparte’s son, Napoleon II, the “King of Rome”. The emperor of the French was at his zenith.
In between he had bequeathed to the world — and to posterity — triumphs like Austerlitz, a ringing name in the annals of military history.
Along with victories came reform too, the 1804 Napoleonic Code, the first modern legal code to influence countries of continental Europe.
Then, one day in the summer of 1812, he declared war on Russia. “I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North,” he is said to have declared.
But the Russians pulled back — pulling with them the invader deep into the heart of their vast land, destroying their own villages, leaving nothing for the mighty French army to forage on.
Hunger did the rest.
Hunger that fed on hubris.