Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The vilest thing in the world"

It's been taking me quite a while, but I've finally been reading Leo Tolstoy's epic novel "War and Peace." It turns out that as thick and forbidding a volume as it is, it's witty, funny, moving, brilliant, worthy of its century-and-a-half of praise. I'm constantly surprised at how biting and passionate a polemicist Tolstoy turns out to be. The setting might be Russia during the Napoleonic wars, but his subject is the human condition.

I'm currently reading about the massive 1812 battle of Borodino at the gates of Moscow. On the eve of the battle the world-weary aristocrat Prince Andrei gives an absolutely bitter rant about war. It's worth calling out:

"If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we'd go to it only when it was worth going to certain death, as now.... War isn't courtesy, it's the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That's the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it's war it's war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people. The military estate is the most honored. But what is war, what is needed for success in military affairs, and what are the morals of military society? The aim of war is killing, the instruments of war are espionage, treason and the encouragement of it, the ruin of the inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to supply the army; deception and lying are called military stratagems; the morals of the military estate are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, depravity, and drunkenness. And in spite of that, it is the highest estate, respected by all. All kings except the Chinese wear military uniforms, and the one who has killed the most people gets the greatest reward. They come together, like tomorrow, to kill each other, they slaughter and maim tens of thousands of men, and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people (inflating the numbers), and proclaim victory, supposing that the more people slaughtered, the greater the merit. How does God look down and listen to them!" (Volume 3, Book 2, Chapter 25)

How impossibly sad and relevant and insightful.

The illustration is 'No More War' from the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, ca. 1924.


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