I am currently reading War and Peace. It is good under pandemic conditions to have a nearly interminable book to while away the hours. But it must be a book that can hold you in its grip for all that time. Tolstoy is up to the task.
For the most part, Tolstoy is a cynic about human motives. He would deny that very many people are capable of throwing themselves selflessly into a cooperative enterprise—and scorns the idea (considered in my previous post) that war offers an instance of such full-throated cooperation. He insists (rather like Arendt on Eichmann’s careerism) that war offers just another venue for the petty seeking for status and preeminence that characterizes 80% of human action in his novel.
The common soldiers know nothing about the so-called “causes” for which the war is being fought, while the officers are all jockeying for advancement and motivated more by the rivalries and jealousies of their relations to their fellow officers than by any larger vision. Because society and the world of public affairs (politics, war, organized religion, the Masons; business never enters Tolstoy’s novel except in the form of the corrupt stewards who rob the aristocratic owners of estates) is so dominated by the despicable, the only happiness open to his hero Pierre is the domestic bliss that comes from marrying the right woman.
This general outlook is only tempered a bit by the remarkable meditation of Prince Andrew on the eve of the battle of Borodino (a battle that produced the most casualties of any battle during the Napoleonic wars). Andrew finds (to his surprise) a fundamental patriotism in himself, but also articulates a clear-sighted vision of war’s barbarity. He scorns the need to believe that there are “rules of war,” since the appeal to such rules only serves to hide the fact that war is murder. And he despairs when he thinks that men will ask god to bless, even aid, their acts of murder. Humans are beasts—and it is disgusting to see them dress up their bestiality as noble and honorable.
My father did join the Marines in 1942 for high-minded reasons. And he seemed, for the most part, to retain that high-mindedness through his tough years of service in the Pacific theater. Reading Tolstoy fills me, once again, with my basic incredulity. Men do this? How? And why? In one remarkable passage in his description of the battle at Borodino, Tolstoy depicts an infantry regiment standing in a field in reserve. They are also being shelled by the French. After each cannon ball falls among them, they gather up the dead and wounded, carry them off, and then close up ranks. How is it possible for men to act this way? To stand still under bombardment?
Here’s the long passage that gives us Prince Andrew’s musings.
‘Yes, yes,’ answered Prince Andrew absently. ‘One thing I would do if I had the power,’ he began again, ‘I would not take prisoners. Why take prisoners? It’s chivalry! The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow, they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals. And so thinks Timokhin and the whole army. They should be executed! Since they are my foes they cannot be my friends, whatever may have been said at Tilsit.”
’‘Yes, yes,’ muttered Pierre, looking with shining eyes at Prince Andrew. ‘I quite agree with you!’ The question that had perturbed Pierre on the Mozhaysk hill and all that day now seemed to him quite clear and completely solved. He now understood the whole meaning and importance of this war and of the impending battle. All he had seen that day, all the significant and stern expressions on the faces he had seen in passing, were lit up for him by a new light. He understood that latent heat (as they say in physics) of patriotism which was present in all these men he had seen, and this explained to him why they all prepared for death calmly, and as it were lightheartedly.
‘Not take prisoners,’ Prince Andrew continued: ‘That by itself would quite change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is we have played at war, that’s what’s vile! We play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed: she is so kind-hearted that she can’t look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce. They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It’s all rubbish! I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805; they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder other people’s houses, issue false paper money, and worst of all they kill my children and my father, and then talk of rules of war and magnanimity to foes! Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed! He who has come to this as I have through the same sufferings.’
Prince Andrew, who had thought it was all the same to him whether or not Moscow was taken as Smolensk had been, was suddenly checked in his speech by an unexpected cramp in his throat. He paced up and down a few times in silence, but his eyes glittered feverishly and his lips quivered as he began speaking.
‘If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worth while going to certain death, as now. Then there would not be war because PaulIvanovich had offended Michael Ivanovich. And when there was a war, like this one, it would be war! And then the determination of the troops would be quite different. Then all these Westphalians and Hessians whom Napoleon is leading would not follow him into Russia, and we should not go to fight in Austria and Prussia without knowing why. War is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. It all lies in that: get rid of falsehood and let war be war and not a game. As it is now, war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous. The military calling is the most highly honored.’
‘But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone. All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.‘
‘They meet, as we shall meet tomorrow, to murder one another; they kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people (they even exaggerate the number), and they announce a victory, supposing that the more people they have killed the greater their achievement. How does God above look at them and hear them?’ exclaimed Prince Andrew in a shrill, piercing voice. ‘Ah, my friend, it has of late become hard for me to live. I see that I have begun to understand too much. And it doesn’t do for man to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil…. Ah, well, it’s not for long!’ he added. Book Ten, Chapter 25.)
I will only add that since World War I, the notion that soldiers are the most honorable, “the highest class,” is no longer universally accepted. The current taboo against criticizing the common soldier stems (again only in more left-leaning circles) from a perception that they are the victims of the deplorable adventurism of our political leaders. The soldier is not to blame for the evil he does; he is caught up in forces he cannot control or gainsay. But the idea that the killing he does is not evil, but in fact noble, has far fewer adherents today than it did in 1815.