On reading War and Peace (Tolstoi), On War (Clausewitz) and War (Sun Tsu)
March 15, 2011
In writing my next novel “Wounded,” I have been thinking how to create the eminence grise, Alexander Soroka, is a disillusioned Bolshevik Russian Jew who had had a hand in the Lenin and Stalin genocides. Alexander Soroka is a propagandist, a Soviet deception planner, a master of narrative and message, who spins the narrative of the Soviet seven-year plan (1958-1964), its stated goal being the victory of Communism, the creation of heaven on earth.
The United States has been designated the Main Enemy (Главный противник), against which Soroka formulates Soviet strategy. Once a believer, he now reads the Communist Party archives.
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev––the two are old WWII frontoviki–– now Soviet premier, tells him to review the deception annex to a Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces movement order, which will become the 1962 deployment of medium range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to Cuba, a most innocent correction to the balance of forces, and which will precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis, which will brings the world to the edge of mass murder. We know this now. He anticipates this then.
There is an old saw in fiction that if you wish to write, don’t read. Since leaving for Dubai I’ve reread three books on war, or rather war and strategy; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Have not written a word of fiction since. I grope me way back.
Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Tolstoy––three perspectives on motive force in human affairs: Sun Tzu; the general controls his fate, Clausewitz; the general controls but tenuously his fate, Count Tolstoy; only a fool of a general believes he controls anything. It may have been an unfortunate grouping.
People are always too clever with their eldest children and try to make something exceptional of them. Lev Tolstoy, born into an extended Russian family, understood viscerally that man’s agency in history was illusory. A young couple answers the question how is the child formed; nature or nurture? It is thus: A family with one child assumes that nurture is the formative influence in a child’s personality and future success. These parents buy their one-year-old child art appreciation and language acquisition videos. The second child sows doubt. The third child arrives and the parents no longer doubt but that nature is the formative influence. As my older siblings always inform me, I “got away with murder.”
Tolstoy sets himself in the composition of War and Peace a mighty goal; to write the truth not as he wishes it to be, but as it is. The main characters are ordinary souls with ordinary minds, i.e., flawed all over the place. Prince Andrei Bolkonskij marries a slip of a girl, Princess Lise, and abandons her pregnant, frightened and alone to seek the acclaim of a detested and corrupt society. Count Pierre Bezhukov, a nice-enough dolt, becomes immensely wealthy through no fault of his own, flitters from one to another nonsensical au courrent philosophy, a Russian liberal, for God’s sake––there could be no greater object of scorn.
Accident, randomness and chance buffets. Prussian strategy, intricate Austrian war planning, heroic leadership (Napoleon) impact events without pattern save chance or the hand of God. The French generals Murat, Lannes, and Belliard bluff their way across a fortified and mined Vienna bridge thus effecting a breakthrough of the Alliance lines; Prince Andrei grasps the fallen regimental banner to rally the regiment, but a French bullet strikes him square in the chest rather than whistling close to his ear. Napoleon traversing the Austerlitz battlefield prattling romantic war nonsense comes upon the grievously wounded Prince Andrei, the regimental flag in his heroic grasp. When Prince Andrei moans, wanting to live, Napoleon exclaims in Russian, “Он жив!” (He’s alive!). By chance the prince survives.
Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz profess (or are professed) to teach strategy. Tolstoy denies the existence much less the efficacy of strategy.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a collection of well-spoken aphorisms, causing one to pause, to consider, to look anew. In opposition to Tolstoy, I read Sun Tzu, profitably, I believe. (I also kept handy a battered sheet of Murphy’s Laws of Combat.)
Concurring with Tolstoy, I did not bother to read On War. As a soldier, I was too busy. When tempted to pick it up, I always thought ‘Ludendorff,’ put it down, and read instead a technical report on SA-6 missile wartime reserve frequencies, or some such. In all such cases it was the right choice at the moment. Neither Alexander the Great nor Napoleon nor Generals Grant, Sherman, Lee and (Stonewall) Jackson read Clausewitz nor, as far as I can tell, had America’s grand master strategist, General George C. Marshall.
In the service schools, we acknowledged Clausewitz like we acknowledged God; we kept a copy of On War on our desks, said our prayers before meals, but our relationship to either remained a personal and private matter.
The German Army and Clausewitz, acknowledged master practitioners of the tactical and operational arts, brought catastrophic strategic destruction upon the Heimat.
Clausewitz described Napoleonic era tactical and operational arts. He spoke in passing of strategy and politics. Had he lived beyond his fifty-first year, had he gotten that appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, had he had a combat command, and after all this reworked his notes, then perhaps he would have become worthy of close study. Clausewitz himself never intended to publish On War. He characterized it as a work “that only deserves to be called a shapeless mass of ideas … being liable to endless misinterpretations.”
And so it was, and so it is.
Reading Clausewitz was a waste of time. Not reading Clausewitz was a dereliction of duty.
Both the German and the Soviet 20th century militaries read Clausewitz, acknowledged him as a teacher, argued his texts pro or con and wrote their doctrine with reference to his text, disposing and deploying their forces accordingly.
Vladimir I. Lenin in Socialism and War quotes approvingly “War is the continuation of politics by other” (i.e., violent) “means” and states:
This famous aphorism was uttered by one of the profoundest writers on the problems of war, Clausewitz. Marxists have always rightly regarded this thesis as the theoretical basis of views concerning the significance of every given war. It was precisely from this viewpoint that Marx and Engels always regarded different wars.
Lenin endorsed Clausewitz to the Soviet General Staff. The German General Staff and Army scorched the lessons of OnWar into the Russian soul. Between 1914 and 1945 In accordance with Karl von Clausewitz 30-50 millionGerman and Russian soldiers and civilians died on the steppes, swamps and forests between Moscow and Berlin. Upon this experience and this doctrine Soviet military theorists and generals designed a strategy and deployed a Soviet Army, its victories pyrrhic or not, to destroy NATO, of which my American army constituted the core.
If we NATO war planners were to understand the rules which motivated and directed the deployment of massed T-62 and T-72 tanks formations echeloned from Helmstead, Germany to the Kiev Military District, and defeat them, then in Clausewitz we would have to seek first cause.
Alas, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, reading the preceding lines, would, were he feeling kindly, have muttered Нелепость (nonsense) and were he not, пошлость (self-satistied mediocrity). He rejected in detail my assertion of my agency in preparing for or preventing war.
His scorn for the German strategist, Karl Ludwig von Pfuel and his acolytes, who were Von Clausewitz’s predecessors, was unbounded. In 1806 Pfuel had been one of architects of the plan….that ended in Jena and Auerstädt (pg. 640, War and Peace)
The count, no mean historian himself, articulates a wholesale attack on the fundament of the then existent Euro-American craft of history, inserting wholesale and wide-ranging attacks throughout the text and epilogue to War and Peace.
His question is what force moves people? (p. 1182, W&P)
He saw contemporary historians aligning with one of four separate explanations:
1. The all-powerful deity: Events on earth, good or bad, are explained through the working of a will independent of our own, a will which involves itself in our affairs either minutely (see Reb Tevye in Fiddle of the Roof) or episodically (the Biblical Flood and so on). Thus we read the Greek myths, the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran wherein man’s only hope to mitigate his fate is to propitiate:
…but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory…
The three prime mover theories, which, asserts Lev Nikolayevich, are mere squabbles among scribblers, are:
2) The Great Man (Alexander, the Great or Napoleon decree that history shall move thus)
3) The Great Idea (Rousseau wrote a book which caused people to act) or
4) The Great Composite (numerous human and ideological vectors playing off one another to make movement in history)
A formidable polemicist, Count Tolstoy destroys every (prime mover) theory of history, and, loved by nation and adored by family, dies despairing and alone in a Russian train station, his all-destroying intellect leaving a moral battlefield barren of meaning, littered with the detritus and carnage of philosophical warfare.
Isaiah Berlin, in his essay on Tolstoy’s struggle with history, “The Fox and the Hedgehog” explains:
For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has signiﬁcance– and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.
The former is named the hedgehog, the latter the fox and, Isaiah Berlin asserts, Tolstoy is a fox who masquerades as, but fails to be, the hedgehog. I am suspicious that the Count would be deeply interested in chaos theory in defense the accusation of historical determinism, but that awaits another blog.
The youthful Alexander Soroka was very smart, an inspired teacher, knew his Marx and Lenin well. A Marxist prodigy. He knows more now. He continues to teach. On this date, 10 March 2011, you know as much as I do.
That’s the way I do it anyway. I put a certain person in a certain situation with some awareness and some knowledge and see how he handles himself. We shall see what happens.
 A dismal subject made none the less so by abuse of language. I use the definitions provided at the limited (limited?) Genocide Resources Project of Northern Arizona University. http://grp.nau.edu/projects/gd/
* Genocide – The killing of people by a government because of their indelible group membership (race, ethnicity, religion, language).
* Democide – The murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.
* Politicide – The murder of any person or people by a government because of their politics or for political purposes.
* Mass Murder – The indiscriminate killing of any person or people by a government.
 Tolstoy, Leo; Pevear,Richard; Volokhonsky,Larissa, 2007, 1273, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1 I was first introduced to War and Peace in my 18th year as a Russian- learning text. My first copy of War and Peace was an English translation by Constance Garnett, which I still have. For my January 2011 Dubai trip, I downloaded to Kindle the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation. Returning home, I checked out the recent Pevear and Volokhonskij translation. It was revelatory. Reading the Pevear & Volokhovskij translation is like reading Tolstoy in Russian, only in English.
 . Book one, Chapter 12 W&P
 (Aphorism |ˈafəˌrizəm|, noun a pithy observation that contains a general truth, such as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” or • a concise statement of a scientific principle, typically by an ancient classical author.
 (Quoted in Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State (Princeton University Press, 1985), 381.)
 I go here for basic Marxist documents. (http://www.marxists.de/war/lenin-war/ch1.htm)
 p. 436, http://www.scribd.com/Isaiah-Berlin-The-Hedgehog-and-the-Fox/d/27783907)
 All reading suggests further reading. For a contemporary treatment of human agency, read Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, especially one of the recent printings where he addresses the murder of his son, Chris, on a San Francisco street. Pirsig seems to attain some peace, wisdom, sadness, perhaps, with the issue of historical determinism vs. free will. Alas, Tolstoy did not.