Big Thinking: Tolstoy and Guerrophilia

John McCain’s been taking a beating lately for, let’s see, his choice of Sarah Palin, his impulsive behavior, his lack of a finely-tuned economic plan. I’m glad Obama’s message is finally breaking through to a critical mass of voters, and I just pray the momentum continues until November 4, when we can rest easy in our choice of a stabilizing leader.

But none of the raging criticisms directed against John McCain address my own biggest beef with him. John McCain’s most offensive trait of all is his unabashed love of war. He proudly describes himself as a former hot-dog Navy pilot in endless autobiographies and speeches, and if you read between the lines of these endless autobiographies and speeches you realize that he’s still the same hot-dog today. He uses military metaphors constantly — even five years in a Hanoi prison hasn’t shaken the military out of him. He grew up in a military family, studied at a military school, and clearly likes to make decisions in an adrenaline-choked, sweaty “blood and guts” manner. This is why his speeches on the economy turn out to be such a mess.

John McCain is a guerrophile (a word I seem to have virtually made up, but it’s a good word, and I plan to keep using it). Guerrophilia runs rampant in world politics. It’s what George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden have in common. Saddam Hussein had a bad case of it, and Vladimir Putin’s the newest member in the club. Extreme fondness for war is a trait George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Teddy Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Mao Zedong all had in common. To a guerrophile, war is exciting and wholesome. War builds profits, war builds nations, war builds character.

Fortunately, not all wartime leaders have been guerrophiles. Abraham Lincoln did not love war, nor Anwar Sadat. Today, though, the strongman posture remains unfortunately very popular with crowds, and peace-loving humans all over the world must wonder why we continue to allow our planet to be so repeatedly savaged by violent fools. This brings us to a great 19th century epic novel about the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and Russia: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, published between 1865 and 1869 in a journal called Russkii Vestnik.

This thick novel alternates between high society drama and military history, culminating in the great battle between Napoleon’s forces and Tsar Alexander’s forces in 1812 (a reenactment of the Battle of Borodino, featured in this book, is pictured above). As a proud Russian writing fifty years after the war, Tolstoy gloried in the fact that Tsar Alexander destroyed Napoleon’s peerless army with passive resistance, yielding the city of Moscow to trap the invaders into a Russian winter (this is the same disastrous campaign famously pictured in a graph by Charles Joseph Minard).

Here, towards the end of the epic book, Tolstoy writes as a historian, plumbing Russia’s miraculous passive victory over France for deeper meaning:

Strange as may be the historical account of how some king or emperor, having quarreled with another, collects an army, fights his enemy’s army, gains a victory by killing three, five, or ten thousand men, and subjugates a kingdom and an entire nation of several millions, all the facts of history (as far as we know it) confirm the truth of the statement that the greater or lesser success of one army against another is the cause, or at least an essential indication, of an increase or decrease in the strength of the nation — even though it is unintelligible why the defeat of an army — a hundredth part of a nation — should oblige that whole nation to submit. An army gains a victory, and at once the rights of the conquering nation have increased to the detriment of the defeated. An army has suffered defeat, and at once a people loses its rights in proportion to the severity of the reverse, and if its army suffers a complete defeat the nation is quite subjugated.

So according to history it has been found from the most ancient times, and so it is to our own day. All Napoleon’s wars serve to confirm this rule. In proportion to the defeat of the Austrian army Austria loses its rights, and the rights and the strength of France increase. The victories of the French at Jena and Auerstadt destroy the independent existence of Prussia.

But then, in 1812, the French gain a victory near Moscow. Moscow is taken and after that, with no further battles, it is not Russia that ceases to exist, but the French army of six hundred thousand, and then Napoleonic France itself. To strain the facts to fit the rules of history: to say that the field of battle at Borodino remained in the hands of the Russians, or that after Moscow there were other battles that destroyed Napoleon’s army, is impossible.

Tolstoy stresses a major point in these final chapters: nobody, not even the successful and careful Russian general Kutuzov, planned Russia’s brilliant victory. Tolstoy stands firmly against the idea (highly popular in Tolstoy’s time, and highly popular still today) of “the great man” who changes history, believing any leader, especially any military leader, who considers himself “great” to be a pompous fraud:

Why did it happen in this and not in some other way?

Because it happened so! “Chance created the situation; genius utilized it,” says history.

But what is chance? What is genius?

The words chance and genius do not denote any really existing thing and therefore cannot be defined. Those words only denote a certain stage of understanding of phenomena. I do not know why a certain event occurs; I think that I cannot know it; so I do not try to know it and I talk about chance. I see a force producing effects beyond the scope of ordinary human agencies; I do not understand why this occurs and I talk of genius.

To a herd of rams, the ram the herdsman drives each evening into a special enclosure to feed and that becomes twice as fat as the others must seem to be a genius. And it must appear an astonishing conjunction of genius with a whole series of extraordinary chances that this ram, who instead of getting into the general fold every evening goes into a special enclosure where there are oats — that this very ram, swelling with fat, is killed for meat.

But the rams need only cease to suppose that all that happens to them happens solely for the attainment of their sheepish aims; they need only admit that what happens to them may also have purposes beyond their ken, and they will at once perceive a unity and coherence in what happened to the ram that was fattened. Even if they do not know for what purpose they are fattened, they will at least know that all that happened to the ram did not happen accidentally, and will no longer need the conceptions of chance or genius.

Only by renouncing our claim to discern a purpose immediately intelligible to us, and admitting the ultimate purpose to be beyond our ken, may we discern the sequence of experiences in the lives of historic characters and perceive the cause of the effect they produce (incommensurable with ordinary human capabilities), and then the words chance and genius become superfluous.

We need only confess that we do not know the purpose of the European convulsions and that we know only the facts–that is, the murders, first in France, then in Italy, in Africa, in Prussia, in Austria, in Spain, and in Russia–and that the movements from the west to the east and from the east to the west form the essence and purpose of these events, and not only shall we have no need to see exceptional ability and genius in Napoleon and Alexander, but we shall be unable to consider them to be anything but like other men, and we shall not be obliged to have recourse to chance for an explanation of those small events which made these people what they were, but it will be clear that all those small events were inevitable.

Here, Tolstoy mockingly summarizes the entire French revolutionary experience, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to Napoleon’s collapse in 1813, in two quick paragraphs:

In 1789 a ferment arises in Paris; it grows, spreads, and is expressed by a movement of peoples from west to east. Several times it moves eastward and collides with a countermovement from the east westward. In 1812 it reaches its extreme limit, Moscow, and then, with remarkable symmetry, a countermovement occurs from east to west, attracting to it, as the first movement had done, the nations of middle Europe. The counter movement reaches the starting point of the first movement in the west — Paris — and subsides.

During that twenty-year period an immense number of fields were left untilled, houses were burned, trade changed its direction, millions of men migrated, were impoverished, or were enriched, and millions of Christian men professing the law of love of their fellows slew one another.

Leo Tolstoy was one of the most influential pacifists of his age, and has been cited as a key inspiration by Mahatma Gandhi among many others. I find his writings on history and war the most satisfying parts of War and Peace (the long novel does drag in the ballroom scenes, I admit). I love the bitter sarcasm, born certainly of the deepest rage, when he writes of the pomposity of militant phonies leading their marches. What War and Peace expresses, ultimately, is our weariness with the great fraud known as war, and with the demagogues who luxuriate in it.

Leo Tolstoy was generally an optimist, participating through his life in many exchanges and activites to explain and promote the pacifist cause. Despite his general optimism, though, his great epic War and Peace is filled with tones of dread:

Modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.

I see the pompous spirit of Tolstoy’s Napoleon in abundance on the TV news every night, especially during election season. What about you?

12 Responses

  1. Abstract Wars

    Abstract Wars

    Happy Birthday, John Dean. Dean’s book Conservatives w/out Conscience. The title says it all.

    Republicans are hardwired authoritarians. Daddy is the head of the household. Scapegoats are the siblings at the bottom, and in the middle.

  2. “. . . even though it is
    “. . . even though it is unintelligible why the defeat of an army — a hundredth part of a nation — should oblige that whole nation to submit.”

    Fantastic! So simple a statement, but so often overlooked.

    I’ve got to admit, I might never read War and Peace, so I appreciate Litkicks bringing these these passages to my attention.

    Let me get this straight, Levi. You don’t want a president got low grades in college, crashed a bunch of airplanes, dumped his first wife after she became disfigured in a car wreck to marry a rich younger woman, and thinks of everything in terms of battles and wars.

    You want a president who worked for 4 years as a community organizer in Chicago, went to Harvard Law School, served as president of the Harvard Law Review (widely considered the most influential and prestigious law publication in the nation), and is willing to talk to the leaders of hostile nations from a position of strength.

  3. A masterly post, Levi.
    A masterly post, Levi. McCain’s love of war is one of those things that lurks on the edge of one’s mind, awaiting a clear thinker to point it out.

    Most of the cannon fodder sent to die in Iraq may not love war, but they and their families honestly believe the myths: that they are defending their country, fighting for freedom, etc. This appears to be some consolation to the parents, wives and babies they leave behind.

    The good news is, of course, that McCain appears to be finished. He’s like a fish on land, flopping, gasping, using every desperate trick to reach water he’ll never see. Fuck him. He deserves his fate.

  4. I could not agree more. It
    I could not agree more. It is so confusing to watch these debates, as the pacifist has no legitimate candidate. Every debate seems to be a pissing contest over who wants to fight more countries. One of them will bring up Iran, the next will trump him with Pakistan and North Korea. And while McCain has a long history of warmongering, Obama has almost no history, except that he was not for this war. So why does he continuously talk about more war?

    So far neither of them, though I believe they have both quoted it, have spoken softly, choosing instead to speak loudly and constantly of their gigantic sticks. Obama mentions often that he was not for this war, but doesn’t speak nearly enough about exiting it and not starting new ones. Don’t get me wrong, McCain is a lost cause. A vote for McCain is a vote for war and imperialism, but the question remains: what is a vote for Obama. Mine goes to him as at least there is a chance he stands for peace.

    I would feel more comfortable if I knew something about Obama’s literary leanings. Tolstoy and Vonnegut would seal the deal. In fact, if he only read the books that Palin was banning I’d be happy. McCain looks like a military biography guy. Everything about him screams war and conquest. We just had a “go with my gut” president, do we really need another one? We know that Bush and Palin do not read at all (no thanks), unless you believe that ridiculous reading contest that Bush was involved in. So it remains, what is Obama reading?

  5. well, mccain does seem to be
    well, mccain does seem to be a guerrophile. it does seem like cognitive dissonance to be a p.o.w. for years and remain pro-military. and i have not finished war and peace, not yet.

    “it is unintelligible why the defeat of an army — a hundredth part of a nation — should oblige that whole nation to submit.” i do see the pompous spirit you refer to in the news. i read how leaving iraq is equivalent to surrendering. i think we could concede this ridiculous point to the hawks, in view of tolstoy’s words. leaving iraq will not harm americans or their psyche.

    though the american interests in iraq differ from france’s interests in russia, it’s clear that as iraq is not our homeland, the us position equates with napoleonic france. passive resistance is a tool for the oppressed and the occupee. there is no possibility of passive resistance for the us but we can conquer the shit out of them.

    it was vonnegut who, presciently, pointed out that the bush administration are sociopaths. i’ve drank in a buttload (equating to 1.5 hogsheads) of social science, and it’s easy to spot how mr. growly lacks normal human feelings. empathy is one and any one of us could toss out half a hogshead more. if we are in a war launched by sociopaths, then ending it can only ameliorate the psyche of the nonsociopaths, the majority. we’ll feel so good about ourselves that we’ll forward youtube videos of strangers high-fiving each other in the street.

    tolstoy does not convince me that genius and chance are meaningless terms. genius certainly is a really existing thing and it can be defined. dante was and so was shakespeare. tolstoy would disagree with the latter though he’d be the only one. to assert (without support) that we can only understand genius if we admit an ultimate purpose beyond our ken is, to me, anti-literature and anti-human.

  6. “Democracy don’t rule the
    “Democracy don’t rule the world, You’d better get that in your head. This world is ruled by violence. But I guess that’s better left unsaid.”
    – Bob Dylan

  7. Dylan is right – the history
    Dylan is right – the history of the world is a succession of violent land take-overs, sometimes blatant, other time disguised as religious or humanitarian ventures – BUT THINK – it might be possible to stop the trend! Skeptics say, “No, Bill, you are too naive. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. This isn’t Star Trek, where the Vulcans come down and scare mankind into working together.”

    They say that a person who suffers family violence as a child is more likely to become violent as an adult. But they also say, it’s possible to break that cycle.

    It is possible to break the cycle of war.

    But I say, WHY must it be a naive dream? It IS possible.

  8. Who needs a Dylan, man, to
    Who needs a Dylan, man, to know which way the the hammer blows.

  9. Not a naive dream at all. The
    Not a naive dream at all. The first step is to wake up and realize we’ve been had. The two-party system is a farce, our economy is – at best – poorly run state capitalism, and our comfortable denial is allowing corporations to rape the planet for profit. I could go on…and on and on.

  10. John McCain just sickens me.
    John McCain just sickens me. I can hardly stomach watching the man talk, let alone debate.

  11. John McCain is a prisoner of
    John McCain is a prisoner of his past, that is no way to conduct a future.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!