I could write about the events of the battle, and its impact on world history.
I could write about the nature of Napoleonic combat–the three arms of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and the weapons they used; how those weapons affected the tactics of the battle; how Marshal Ney’s attacks illustrated the imperviousness of infantry squares to cavalry, and how the defeat of the Imperial Guard demonstrated the superiority of line over column.
But then a sobering thought occurred. In a rare moment of self-reflection, I suddenly wondered: “Why do I know about this stuff?!”
I mean, I’m a peaceable guy. I’ve never served in the military. I’ve never used a weapon in anger. I’m not a historian, or a historical novelist. Heck, I don’t even play one on TV. And yet I’ve done many, many hours of research, read countless books, visited innumerable museums. Why? Just for fun? Am I a mutant, or what?
No, I’m not a mutant. The truth is much worse than that: I’m a guy. And what’s more, I’m not alone in this. The world is filled with guys. And we guys, insofar as we like to read at all, like to read about war, weapons, and general mayhem.
It explains the wargamers who argue for hours about the relative merits of chain mail versus plate armor, and whether or not a halberd is a purely offensive weapon.
It explains why a quick glance at my bookshelves turned up 102 books on military history, books on dueling, drill manuals and period fencing books. And it explains why I have precise knowledge of how to load and fire a flintlock musket, of the differences between smallswords and spadroons, and of the different kinds of shot used in a man-of-war, but only the vaguest idea of how to change the oil in my car.
Is it the appeal of military virtues like courage, discipline, duty, camaraderie, and honor?
Is it the fancy uniforms, the deadly weapons, the glittering array, and the idea that somehow these will help us to pick up chicks?
Or is it the very horror of the battlefield–the closest thing mankind (and I do mean mankind) has devised to hell on earth? Sometimes a thing is so terrible that it is hard to look away even at hundreds of years’ remove.
The truth is, I don’t know why I’m fascinated, but I am. I don’t watch football. I don’t drink beer. I don’t do stupidly risky things to impress girls (at least, not anymore). I like fluffy kittens, and Notting Hill is one of my favorite movies. Be that as it may, I’m still a guy. I quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and I flip to The History Channel to look for reruns of Conquest and Mail Call (which could equally be called Male Call). And the story of Waterloo grips me: the bravery, the excitement, the terror, the discipline, the suffering, and the death. It brought in a new era then lasted nearly a hundred years, finally ending on another battlefield in Belgium. It’s war; and, like it or not, it’s part of who we are.