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Tolstoy offers a clue on America's 'wars of choice'

July 09, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

In an essay about "Russians," the renowned physicist Freeman Dyson discloses some insights into Russia's participation in wars. In doing so, he takes note of Leo Tolstoy's monumental book, "War and Peace," and his account of Napoleon's decision to invade Russia in 1812. Perhaps this great writer has some wisdom that might be useful as we reflect on our own "wars of choice" and the consequences of such folly.

Just before the Battle of Borodino, a Russian, Prince Andrei, is engaged in a conversation with a friend. The Prince offers this opinion about how to deal with prisoners of war. "There's one thing I would do, if I were in power. I wouldn't take prisoners. What sense is there in taking prisoners? That's chivalry. The French have destroyed my home and are coming to destroy Moscow; they have outraged and are outraging me at every second. They are my enemies, they are all criminals to my way of thinking. ... War is not polite recreation, but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept it sternly and solemnly as a fearful necessity."

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The critical point to be gleaned from the forgoing exchange is that the people of the Middle East and beyond have reacted to our military presence in a way similar to Prince Andrei. We may delude ourselves into thinking that we are "liberators," "nation builders" or a "vanguard of democracy," but we will empty our treasury only to find out that we are regarded as an occupying power.

In World War II, we were in fact welcomed as heroes because we destroyed fascism -- a truly ugly ideology. Our present military adventures have stirred up a rash of fanatic acts of horror that have no limits. We have sown the wind and now reap the whirlwind.

We should be able to relate to this capacity to retaliate. Our colonial history is replete with accounts of frontier savagery and brutality. Only when we visit the early sites and see the beautiful landscapes where Native Americans had their villages that were overrun by an avalanche of Euro-Americans can we sense their justifiable rage. We, too, would have fought to the death to save our homes and villages.

Tolstoy then cuts Napoleon off at the ankles. "Napoleon is represented to us as the leader in all the movement, just as the figurehead in the prow of a ship to the savage seems the force that guides the ship on its course. Napoleon in his activity all this time was like a child sitting in a carriage, pulling the straps within it and fancying he is moving it along."

The foregoing statement by Tolstoy is hindsight. Nevertheless, it is probably true of many wars. Prince Andrei was mortally wounded in the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon moved his forces on to Moscow. Here, after occupying that city, Napoleon was unable to force the tsar to surrender. A large portion of Napoleon's army was forced to trudge in despair, wounded, starving, and weary, back to France.

Will we learn nothing from history? The neo-cons, who persuaded President Bush to invade and occupy Iraq, before the situation in Afghanistan was secured, have now cornered us into two wars which even if winnable, come at an unbearable cost. Are we not in a condition somewhat like the catastrophe strapped onto France by Napoleon? The only difference is that the French army struggled in the cold while our army struggles in the heat.

France suffered from the consequences of a delusion that empire should be attained by force of arms. We, too, have made the same blunder -- many of us will not accept this definition of the situation because we are firm believers in American "exceptionalism." There is, of course, some merit in this view of our destiny because it inspires hope that our better nature is the dominant force in our national life.

The fact remains, however, that the historic record for building and maintaining empires is not one to inspire comfort. Empires come and go both by internal malfunctions and external opposition. We are now beset on both counts. Our troops are spread much too far over the globe and our internal disunity almost prohibits problem solving.

Sadly, we, too, ride in the carriage holding the reins and suppose that we, like the child, are in charge of events. We do not need demonic, apocalyptic prophecy to warn us of decline -- we are doing the job with our eyes wide open.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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