Friday, July 31, 2015

Lessons from War and Peace

It was a Wednesday evening and I was sitting in my military history class.  Mr. Vallely, our dynamic professor who magically made that three-hour class seem shorter than some of my other one-hour classes, was standing by the white board.  He had written in large, bold letters: FRICTION.

Friction, he explained, happens in every battle of every war.  You can't avoid friction.  It's the unplanned, unforeseen happenings that get in the way of your plans.  The battalion that shows up late, the division that gets the command wrong and fails to seize the all-important high ground, the fog that prevents a clear view of the enemy line: friction.

No matter how diligently the battle strategy is planned, how strong the military force, how powerful the ammunition, friction will inevitably and unavoidably happen.

And that's one of the reasons I became a history major.  I was fascinated by this concept of "friction," because I didn't see solely chaotic happenings; I saw the hand of God.  The role of Providence in the unfolding of world events.  That invisible, but omnipresent, divine touch.  

I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I picked up War and Peace.  I enjoyed Tolstoy's other works (Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich) and wanted to tackle that powerhouse of a novel, which is often ranked as the greatest literary work of all times.  

I was prepared for monotony.  Why, I'm not sure, since I was never really bored by his other writing.  I suppose the simile is to blame ("It's as long as War and Peace!").  But in many ways, it wasn't long and certain sections were absolutely gripping.  

Battle of Borodino1812

Tolstoy painstakingly researched the history behind his novel, which covers the period from 1805-1812, when Napoleon and his eight hundred thousand men army invaded Russia.  

On the twelfth of June, the forces of western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began--that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature.  Millions of people committed against each other such a countless number of villainies, deceptions, betrayals, thefts, forgeries, and distributions of false banknotes, robberies, arsons, and murders as the annals of all the law courts in the world could not assemble in whole centuries...

Interspersed and interwoven with the lives of five Russian families is Tolstoy's philosophy of history: how should history be reported, who makes history, what causes historical events to happen?

Tolstoy views history and its causes as fluid and constantly unfolding.  The cause of the French invasion of Russia in 1812 cannot be pinpointed to one event, decision, one concrete moment: it the culmination of many events and many decisions, all piling on top of each other and propelling things into the trajectory of an invasion.  

In the same vein, who makes history?  In Tolstoy's time, historians often credited action to the most conspicuous and easy to pinpoint people: the leaders.  Tolstoy begs to differ.

Tolstoy posits that the leaders, such as Napoleon, are the least free of all.  Napoleon rode a wave of movement that he neither initiated nor directed.  

A countless number of free forces (for nowhere is a man more free than in a battle, where it is a question of life and death) influence the direction of the battle, and that direction can never be known beforehand and never coincides with the direction of some one force.  

Frequently, contemporaries of Tolstoy would laud the military genius of Russian commander Kutuzov and others for their brilliant strategy.  No, Tolstoy argues: in hindsight we can retell history as the result of the profound deliberation and strategies of generals.  But such was not so in the actual moment itself.

In offering and accepting battle at Borodino, Kutuzov and Napoleon acted involuntarily and senselessly.  And only later did historians furnish the already accomplished facts with ingenious arguments for the foresight and genius of the commanders, who, of all the involuntary instruments of world events, were the most enslaved and involuntary agents.

Incredibly, both the Russians and the French, in the course of the 1812 invasion, acted contrary to their best interests.  The Russian army tried its utmost to stop Napoleon's advance deeper into Russia--the very thing that would actually destroy his army and save Russia.  Meanwhile Napoleon, advancing late in the year with no winter preparations for his army, continued his invasion further and further, extending his supply train and causing his ruin.

Tolstoy makes many cogent and legitimate points.  But he also is not very consistent.  Sometimes he is quite fatalistic: these events were predestined before all time, so there is nothing you can do about it.  He also tears down the idea of a leader to such an extent--almost a mere puppet of the forces beneath him--that you are prone to forget one exceptional leader...can make a profound difference.

Consider the death of one of Tolstoy's main characters, Prince Andrei.  At the major battle of Borodino, the battle that begins Napoleon's undoing (and single bloodiest day in the Napoleonic Wars), Andrei is hit by a shell.  He is not hit leading a major offensive or performing a feat of bravery.  No, he is mortally wounded while waiting in the reserves, pacing back and forth.  His death feels so needless, his influence in the battle so inconsequential.  Maybe this was Tolstoy's attempt to relate the horror of war, which claims lives like the snuff of a candle.  But it also left a feeling of meaningless, of powerlessness.  

In the end though, Tolstoy argues that history is the mysterious interworking of countless people (leaders, followers, and everyone in between) and Providence.  Fate, free will, friction: the mechanisms that turn the pages of history.

"If there is God and if there is a future life, then there is truth, there is virtue; and man's highest happiness consists in striving to attain them.  We must live, we must love, we must believe," said Pierre, "that we do not live only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and will live eternally there, in the all" (he pointed to the sky).  Prince Andrei stood with his elbow resting on the rail of the ferry, and, listening to Pierre, did not take his eyes off the red gleam of the sun on the blue floodwaters.  Pierre fell silent.  It was completely still.  The ferry had long been moored, and only the waves of the current lapped with a faint sound against the ferry's bottom.  It seemed to Prince Andrei that this splash of waves made a refrain to Pierre's words, saying: "It's true, believe it."

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