"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 22, 2014

Tolstoy’s War And Death–Why Soldiers Willingly Fought And Why 70,000 Died At Borodino

Tolstoy was a philosopher as well as a novelist, and in War and Peace he not only traced the romantic history of the Bolkonskys, Kuragins, and Rostovs, but also elaborated his views of war and history.  He debunked the ‘Great Man’ theory, saying that ever action was conditioned by every other since the beginning of history, and that it was only fiction and fantasy to assume that Austerlitz was won by Napoleon or Borodino by Kutuzov.

Battles were won and lost by the weight of historical antecedent – everything from Charlemagne to the French Revolution to Napoleon’s cold; from the character of the Russian Imperial family, to Tsar Alexander’s youth and upbringing, to the rain and mud on the fields of battle. Tolstoy has been called a Nihilist by those who see in his fatalism and determinism a rejection of nobility and purpose; and a Christian hero by those who read ‘determinism’ as ‘God’.

In the end Tolstoy accepted the strategic genius of Napoleon and the military savvy of Kutuzov, but insisted on placing it within the context of historical antecedent.  He confected a theory in which he could have his cake and eat it too.

There is a second component to Tolstoy’s theory – battles are won and lost not because of the decisions of emperors, tsars, or generals but the will – or absence thereof – of enlisted men. If Kutuzov’s army refused to fight, Napoleon would have marched ahead and conquered Russia; and similarly had Napoleon’s men mutinied because of back pay or the probably of imminent slaughter, Kutuzov would have routed Napoleon and dealt a mortal blow to France’s imperial ambitions.  Tolstoy wrote about the ‘transfer of authority’ from the masses to their leaders, not the other way around.

The question of why the soldiers of both armies fought is far more perplexing than the historical record of war, diplomacy, and geopolitics which lead to macro-decision about war and peace. Soldiers knew that their chances of survival were very small.  While they could not have anticipated the staggering attrition of Borodino – 70,000 men, French and Russian, were lost in one day – but they knew about the nature of war in 1812, and Tolstoy’s description of battle was more than accurate. Soldiers stood on open ground while cannonballs howled and thudded around them.   The fusillades were such that the bullets sounded like angry bees chased from the hive.  Men unceremoniously fell to the ground left and right.  Officers were killed and regiments left leaderless.  Chaos often ensued. It was indeed a vision of hell.

The men who fought had no choice, for conscription had been established by Peter I in 1699; but they could have run (as many did in the rout at Austerlitz) and disappeared into the countryside.  No military justice, court martials, or police pursuit followed them.  So why did they willingly fight? Patriotism? Moral conviction? Respect for officers of the aristocracy and years of subservience to their class?

When Pierre asks Andrei on what does success in battle depends, he replies:

On the feeling that is in me and in him and in each soldier.  A
battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose
the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours,
but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and
we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could.
‘We’ve lost, so let us run’ and we ran

Andrei suggests that the will to win is behind victory; but his explanation does not explain everything and does not answer the question of what lies behind will.

Pierre has noted something else – a spirit and camaraderie that seemed to ignore death and dying:

The booming cannonade and the fusillade of musketry were growing
more intense over the whole field, especially to the left where
Bagration’s fleches were, but where Pierre was the smoke of the firing
made it almost impossible to distinguish anything. Moreover, his
whole attention was engrossed by watching the family circle –
separated from all else – formed by the men in the battery. […] Pierre
did not look out at the battlefield and was not concerned to know what
was happening there; he was entirely absorbed in watching this fire
which burned even more brightly and which he felt was flaming up in
the same way in his own soul.

This was more than Henry V’s band of brothers at Agincourt. 

Something else animated the spirit of the soldiers – an indefinable sense of humanity, life, and the exhilaration of war. It is more than morale, discipline, or even patriotism.  Pierre saw in the almost happy faces of his comrades a complete, transforming, and overwhelming drive.

By ten o’clock some twenty men had already been carried away from
the battery; two guns were smashed and cannon balls fell more and
more frequently on the battery and spent bullets buzzed and whistled
around. But the men in the battery seemed not to notice this, and merry
voices and jokes were heard on all sides.

Even though the battle became more dangerous and threatening, the spirits of the men never flagged, and to Pierre’s surprise increased:

Pierre noticed that after every ball that hit the redoubt, and after every
loss, the liveliness increased more and more. As the flames of the fire
hidden within come more and more vividly and rapidly from an
approaching thundercloud, so, as if in opposition to what was taking
place, the lightning of hidden fire growing more and more intense
glowed in the faces of these men

Tolstoy concludes that in addition to will, battles are won on morale:

But all the general and soldiers of [Kutuzov’s] army…experienced a
similar feeling of terror before an enemy who, after losing half his
men, stood as threateningly at the end as at the beginning of the battle.
The moral force of the attacking French army was exhausted. Not that
sort of victory which is defined by the capture of pieces of material
fastened to sticks, called standards, and of the ground on which the
troops had stood and were standing, but a moral victory that convinces
the enemy of the moral superiority of his opponent and of his own
impotence was gained by the Russians at Borodino…The direct
consequence of the battle of Borodino was Napoleon’s senseless flight
from Moscow… and the downfall of Napoleonic France, on which
at Borodino for the first time the hand of an opponent of stronger spirit
had been laid.*

However morale, will, discipline, respect for class order, and brotherhood still do not fully explain the enthusiasm of battle described by Tolstoy, nor the seeming disregard for almost certain death.  The answer has to come from something as practical and prosaic as demographic statistics.  The life expectancy of a man in 1812 was barely 40, for people in the early 19th century still died of endemic and epidemic diseases, accidents, and wild animals at an alarming rate. Whether or not a man died of an infected cut caused by an inadvertently dropped knife or by a bullet from a French fusilier, death was going to come soon.  Better to die gloriously on the battlefield with brothers in arms fighting for a patriotic cause, then to swell up and die in bed. Life expectancy very much determines attitudes towards death and dying.

All of which leads to an examination of today’s soldier, living in an era where life expectancy in the United States is currently 80 years – twice that of Tsar Alexander’s soldiers at Borodino.  A soldier of 20 can expect a long and hopefully productive life if he survives, and therefore the American military strategy of safeguarding the lives of its soldiers even if it means the loss of a strategic objective is understandable.  Napoleon or Kutuzov didn’t think twice about sending conscripts to almost certain death because they were going to die soon anyway, but today’s generals are very much concerned about the moral responsibility of sending boys in harm’s way.

This operational approach, however, does not win wars; and the lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting the fight against the enemy filters down from top brass to enlisted men very quickly. Questionable military motives have been with us since Vietnam, if not Korea. When a risk-adverse battlefield strategy is combined with this uncertain and hesitant commitment, victory against a bloody-minded, implacable enemy like ISIL is highly unlikely.  Our troops have little of the morale, will, patriotism, and fearlessness that Kutuzov’s had at Borodino.

* Thanks to Irina Itriyeva, Wesleyan University for the organization of these quoted passages in her paper An Examination of Free Will in Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ 2008

1 comment:

  1. Also weighing into the equation of victory and defeat in the case of ISIS: the apparent belief inculcated in these fighters that it's glorious to be a martyr. We of the Judeo-Christian West want no part of that.

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