This chapter is very short, and doesn’t contain any of the main characters (in the sense that any of Tolstoy’s many characters can be called “main”).  However, it does provide some fascinatingly disturbing insights into the Russian army at the time.

We see Zherkov the Giggler again, this time up with the Russian cannons, protecting the Russian army as it literally burns Austrian bridges to stop the French coming over.  Disturbingly, the Russian soldiers (far less cultivated than most of the aristocratic characters we’ve met so far) are happily discussing rape and pillaging.  More disturbing – this is not the plunder of the French that they’re talking about – but Austria.  Hey, look, the country’s in an uproar?  Why not?

Even the first appearance of the French army in the book (just a tiny speck on a hill on the other side of the valley with their own cannons) seems to spark more a sense of fun than any real worry about their comrades down below, crossing a bridge far too slowly to escape . . . If you haven’t worked it out, also, the hussars are doing the bridge burning, meaning that Nikolai Rostov is potentially in danger.

It’s a strange picture of warfare.  And nothing makes it so strange, as Tolstoy’s amazing last phrase here (as translated by Maude): “the clear sound of the solitary shot and the brilliance of the bright sunshine merged in a single joyous and spirited impression”.  Do troops nowadays find a strange joy in war, I wonder?

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4 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 2.6 – A Shade of Grey

  1. Alas, I suspect that the answer to your question is “yes”, at least at the start. Maybe wars would not happen at all if everyone who is ordered to participate in them approached them at the start with the same horror that inevitably engulfs them later on. But at first, it seems, those young men see war in the same way that it was presented to them when they were little boys – a game. And not only do they see war as a game, but their whole sense of human dignity and worth gives way to an indiscriminate devaluing of human life, where even the nuns in the Austrian convent are seen as part of their bag of toys. And then the piece de resistance is the very last line, which you quote – where those soldiers see the sun itself as a participant in their play.

  2. “Do troops nowadays find a strange joy in war, I wonder?”
    I don’t believe so. By the time they ever get to battle, they are likely to have seen one of their own number die in exercises or accidents – soldiering is dangerous work! – and they’re not blase about the consequences. One of the first things Australian recruits are required to do is to write out their will – yes, while they’re at Kapooka – in the first six weeks. Tends to focus the brain, I would think.
    Does the adrenalin of battle cause a masking use of bravado? I suspect so. Does the suspense cause them to want to get on with it? Does the position of the “others” as enemies cause soldiers to feel satisfaction in removing them and eliminating their threats? I’m sure of it. And will there be satisfaction in seeing that their own materiel and strategies have proven superior, not to mention their own strength? Certainly. All that might evoke joy.
    But it can never be joy in itself. Only a miserable sadist could delight in it. Even Robert E. Lee declared that it was good that war was so terrible otherwise people could take pleasure in their successes (paraphrasing, I know).
    Sometimes it’s not war itself that does the dehumanizing but the evil behaviour of a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mugabe – form your own list, the supposedly civilised C20 gives plenty of monsters to choose from! Wars occur when politicians (legitimate or not) manipulate circumstances unjustly so that eventually people of substance have to stand up and defy such dreadful wickedness for the sake of humanity and bring those miscreants to account.
    What interests me in this chapter is how even the “good guys” can be so tolerant of evil and consider it the mark of a “gentleman” or a reasonable response to imagined boredom.
    Isn’t that so much like Noah’s experience – that the seeds of evil lay within his own heart (drunk after the flood), and in the hearts of his sons (mocking their father’s nakedness) – that they are so deeply embedded in our human nature that even the purging of that great flood did not prevent the conspiracy of Babel. Tolstoy does us good service by recording this debased conversation among the “officers”!

  3. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  4. Austrian Prince – “Yes, the Austrian prince who built that castle was no fool. It’s a fine place! Why are you not eating anything, gentlemen?” Nesvitski was saying.

    Artillery Officer – “Now then, let’s see how far it will carry, Captain. Just try!” said the general, turning to an artillery officer. “Have a little fun to pass the time.”

    Cossack – A Cossack who accompanied him had handed him a knapsack and a flask, and Nesvitski was treating some officers to pies and real doppelkummel.

    General in Command of the Rearguard – Among the field guns on the brow of the hill the general in command of the rearguard stood with a staff officer, scanning the country through his fieldglass.

    148

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