Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a weekly series of blog posts by Steven Axelrod, a writer reflecting on Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, War and Peace, a monumental journey of a novel that he has embarked on completing this winter.
The theme of this week’s passage through War and Peace is the folly of war—and the foolishness of warriors. Everyone gets some pie on their face, with the exception of Napoleon, but we all know he gets his later, in Tolstoy’s epic “great man” smackdown. It’s hinted here, when Prince Andrei Bolkhonsky rails on about Bonaparte’s luck, but the French dwarf’s good fortune at this point in the war arises from nothing more than a demoralized Russian army and a haplessly inept Austrian one.
With enemies like these, you don’t need allies.
First there was the rout of General Mack, and then the effortless occupation of Vienna. Bridges were supposed to be burned to stop the French advance, but French officers tricked the witless Austrians into leaving them alone until it was too late. Kutuzov managed to defeat a minor French General, Mortier, but without capturing him or any of his officers, a victory—in the words of Andrei’s friend Bilbin, the diplomat, “not particularly victorious.” And especially puny in the light of Austria’s capital city being taken by the enemy with about as much difficulty as snatching a snow-cap off a toddler’s head.
The story of how the French took the vital bridge is worth quoting, since it sums up much of what Tolstoy seems to view as the low comedy of military practice in general:
“I’m not joking,” Bilbin went on. “Nothing is more true or sad. These gentlemen come to the bridge by themselves and wave white handkerchiefs; assure them that a truce has been called and that they, the marshalls, are coming to negotiate with Prince Auersperg. The officer on duty lets them into the tete de pont. They tell him a thousand Gascon absurdities: that the war is over, that the emperor Franz has fixed a meeting with Bonaparte, that they wish to see Prince Auersperg, and so on. The officer sends for Auersperg, these gentlemen embrace the officers, sit on the cannons, and meanwhile a French battalion gets onto the bridge unnoticed, throws the sacks of flammable material into the water, and approaches the tete de pont. Finally, the lieutenant general himself comes, our dear Prince Auersperg von Mautern. ‘Our dear enemy! Flower of the Austrian military, hero of the Turkish wars! The hostilities are over, we can shake hands with each other … The emperor Napoleon is burning with desire to meet Prince Auersperg.’ In short, these men aren’t Gascons for nothing, they so shower Auersperg with beautiful words, he’s so charmed by his quickly established intimacy with the French marshalls … the French Battalion rushes into the tete de pont, spikes the cannons, and the bridge is taken.
The real “charm” of these “beautiful words” is that they give the officer an exaggerated sense of his own importance. It reminds me of something John Fowles wrote in The Magus: That men go to war because it’s one pursuit where they know women won’t laugh at them. Everyone needs this battle-fueled ego boost—commanding officer Denisov, who longs to charge the enemy and is told without ceremony to retreat; Prince Andrei, puffed up about his courier status, who winds up being treated like an errand boy.
And best of all, there’s poor Nikolai Rostov, who has revved himself him for the big confrontation with Bogdanych over his refusal to apologize for accusing a fellow officer (correctly) of theft. After all his rehearsals of what he’s going to say and fantasies of what he might do to redeem himself in Bodgdanych’s eyes during the heat of battle, it turns out that Bogdanych has no idea of who he is, no memory of the incident and no interest in his junior officer whatsoever.
The reality of battle affects these two young men very differently. Rostov is untouched but terrified, self-convicted of cowardice after “a whiff of powder”, as Denisov sneers at him. Andrei, grazed by a bullet when his horse is shot out from under him, is considerably tougher but no less deluded. Sitting in his diplomat pal’s house in the lively town of Brunn, with a good meal inside him and his mission, however disappointing, completed, he can scoff at the Austrian officers who dismissed him (They’ve never had a “whiff of powder”—that phrase seems to linger in the air like the smell of cordite) and he can dream happily of battle, experiencing “that tenfold joy of life, such as he has not experienced since childhood.”
He feels like he’s embarked on a glorious crusade, but his friend Bilbin knows better: “It will turn out as I said at the beginning of the campaign, that the matter won’t be decided by your little skirmish at Durenstein, nor by gunpowder, but by those who invented gunpowder.”
Like so much of the book so far, this wry cynicism feels bracingly modern in the age of Halliburton, Lockheed and Raytheon. It’s a nasty little lesson in the practical reality of war and I have the feeling that Prince Andrei will have plenty of time and opportunity to learn it for himself, as the story unfolds.