I have nearly finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy for the even more enjoyable second time around. It is an awe-inspiring commentary on the human condition and great storytelling as well. I think that Volume 4, Part 3 should be required reading for U. S. military and political leaders, because Tolstoy offers so much basic wisdom which seems to have eluded most of our leaders for the past fifty years. Tolstoy analyzes what happened to the French and Russian armies following the battle of Borodino (1812), a very costly victory for Napoleon. The Russian commander Kutuzov was severely criticized for not defending Moscow, but his reticence paid off as the French army was devastated on their withdrawal from the capital city, mostly by lack of supplies and the bitter weather. Kutuzov launched no major attacks on the French but let small bands of “partisans” carry out guerilla attacks. Tolstoy comments that what wins wars is the spirit of the soldiers, not the numbers. The Russians were defending their homeland and the French were exhausted. Napoleon’s Grand Army of 680,000 was reduced to 30,000 able men by the end of the campaign.
“Napoleon … never ceased to complain to … the emperor Alexander that the war was being conducted against all the rules (as if there existed some sort of rules for killing people)…Partisan warfare (always successful, as history demonstrates) is directly opposed to rules… The force that decides the destiny of nations lies not in conquerors, not even in armies and battles, but in something else… This unknown x is the spirit of the army, that is the greater or lesser desire to fight and subject themselves to danger … Men who have the greatest desire to fight will always put themselves in the most advantageous conditions for fighting” (pp.1031-1034, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
The novel was published in 1869 but his words are as true today as when he first wrote them. If only American Presidents since John F. Kennedy had read these words and taken them to heart, perhaps the U.S.A. would not have gotten into a succession of wars like Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, wherein we have found ourselves fighting a war on behalf of “democracy and Western values” instead of trying to convince the local people to stand up for themselves. If the people do not have the spirit to fight, we should not do it for them. Once American soldiers enter the fray (“boots on the ground”) we do more to empower the enemy than our allies. This is particularly shown in the struggle against terrorists. The more American troops engage on the ground the more terrorists groups like Isis use the image of infidels invading the sacred lands of Islam to recruit many to their ranks.
I would guess that President Obama has read War and Peace, for he showed an understanding of Tolstoy’s wisdom in his recent address from the Oval Office. His refusal to enter a ground war with Isis and his emphasis on supporting national armies in the fight against terrorism are the best strategies. He also emphasized the need to support the majority of moderate Muslims in standing up against the Nazi-like tactics of terrorist groups. Mainstream Muslims are our biggest allies in defeating extremists because they suffer at the hands of terrorists more than anyone. The President was accused by critics as being weak and not doing enough, but he might well reply, “Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread”.