by Hugh Fitzgerald (April 2009)
Even if you have not read War and Peace, you will likely know that the title alerts the reader to the book’s unusual form: it shifts back and forth from the lives of Russians, Bolkonskys and Rostovs and other aristocratic families, and at the moral center of this domestic universe, there stands Pierre Bezukhov, whose questioning inquietude makes him the most sympathetic and interesting of the Russians far from the front, while interspersed are the “War” chapters, the war in question being that brought to Russia by Napoleon, who invaded on June 12, 1812, with his 600,000-man Grande Armee. Less than 40,000 of them would return across the Russian border, back to Western Europe.
In the “peace” chapters, aristocrats, some spoiled, some whimsical choodaks with their serf-orchestras, some with estates to manage, some with inheritances to expect or to squander, do all the things that such people will do: they fall in and out of love, betray lovers or abandon them, pick up others, feel remorse or remain indifferent, move complacently through life or, as in the case of Pierre, find themselves questioning so much, as they simultaneously attempt to find, happiness.
And meanwhile, elsewhere, the soldiers and the horses and the cannons are moving or immobile, and French (and Prussian) generals and lesser officers wait to hear what Napoleon, the Great Man, the World Conqueror, decides. On the Russian side, we (non-Russian readers) first are introduced to generals with such unexpected strange un-Russian names, the Georgian Bagration, the French Barclay de Tolly, and many others, discuss strategy in front of, and for the sake of, the wily old man who leads the Russian side, General Kutuzov. He’s quite a contrast to the self-assured vainglorious Napoleon, who by this time in his career has come to believe in his own myth, that of the unstoppable World Conqueror. Napoleon is convinced that as a Great Man he can change the world. The modest, wary, wise Kutuzov had a less exalted view, not only of himself, but of the possibility of individuals to affect history. Kutuzov is the very embodiment of wise passivity, in the manner of some animal protagonist in a fable by Aesop, or better, La Fontaine, or still closer to home, Krylov. He’s not eager to prove himself, he’s not eager to go into battle. He’s interested only in finding the most intelligent and effective way to counter the overwhelming military might of Napoleon.
Kutuzov knows certain things that will be useful in deciding how to act. He knows that Napoleon’s troops entered Russia in June, without winter clothing, because they had assumed they would take Moscow, and would keep warm in commandeered Russian izbas. He knows that the Russian winter will come, inevitably, by mid or late November. He knows Napoleon is counting on the abundance of the Russian land that as his troops march into Russia, their long supply lines – thousands of versts long – will no longer be of much help, and they will have to live off of whatever they can find, and seize, from the Russian military, or Russian civilians. He orders the entire Russian civilian population to withdraw and to destroy everything behind them that could feed or shelter Napoleon’s army. He knows that the longer it takes the French to get to Moscow, the closer it comes to winter, the more dangerous their situation becomes.
But he also knows that his generals will, because they are generals, want to fight. Not fighting, especially in your own country against an invader, not defending your own capital, does not normally make sense. So Kutuzov lets them do it, lets the Russians fight at Borodino. The battle was inconclusive, though there were heavy casualties on both sides. But the Battle of Borodino, thanks to a poem by Lermontov that is memorized by all Russian schoolchildren, has entered the Russian version of history as a great victory.
And even at the time, Kutuzov’s generals could be proud of their willingness to engage the mightiest army ever assembled by the mightiest power in Europe. And now Kutuzov could try things his way, obtain victory his way.
Napoleon and his Grande Armee, most of them French but among them Prussians, Poles, Spaniards, Italians and others, entered Russia and made their way to Moscow expecting to meet, and defeat, the armies of Russia along the way, and then to seize the capital, and obtain Russia’s capitulation. But it was not to be. Those who expectantly turn to Tolstoy’s chapters on War assuming they will find on one side, the story of Russian warriors, determined to go out and meet the foe and drive him from the threatened fatherland, or on the other, French generals who might behave as proleptic Petraeuses, distributing French goods to win over Russian hearts and minds, will be disappointed. For what they will find is that, by and large, the grand general, the savior of Russia, was old, wily Kutuzov, famous not for the battles he fought, but for his refusal to have the Russian forces engage, on a large-scale, with Napoleon’s troops, but who pulled back, and pulled back, and pulled back, not only all the way to Moscow, but even pulled out of Moscow altogether, and let the Russians set their own capital alight, so that there would be nothing for the French to conquer, and the policy of scorched earth or terra bruciata would be executed not by the invader, but by those invaded. And, as we all know, General Winter did the rest.
Napoleon, he knew, had not equipped his troops adequately for the Russian winter. The French troops had left their own country in early spring, and the Prussian troops and joined their rank a little later in the spring. He, Napoleon had assumed they would be in Moscow before winter. But even if they were not, Russia’s rulers would, when they arrived in Moscow, have capitulated, and the Grande Armee, in palaces and even izbas commandeered from the locals, live as comfortably as the Russians did, even in wintry Moscow. It did not occur to Napoleon that Kutuzov might not put up resistance, or that he would enter a silent city
That is what happened. Kutuzov refused after Borodino to engage Napoleon’s forces. And that is the story that Tolstoy tells in the “War” chapters of “War and Peace.” It’s a book not often read through. It’s not a book, as far as I know, on the syllabus at West Point. But the lesson or moral that one can draw from the example of Kutuzov nowadays is one that American forces, and other Infidel military men who were engaged in Iraq, or are now engaged in Afghanistan, might study with profit. The lesson is not: let Winter, or let the Weather, be factored in. That’s too narrow. The lesson is: do not be afraid not to fight, but to leave the enemy to disintegrate on his own, either from natural forces, or from man-made ones.
How would the example of Kutuzov helped to redirect the American effort in Iraq, once it was clear to everyone that there no weapons of mass destruction to be found?
In Iraq, the most obvious features of Iraqi life are the persistence, despite numerical inferiority, of rule by Sunni Arabs. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athism appeared to offer access to power by Shi’a Arabs, or by Kurds, or even by the odd Christian (Tariq Aziz), but in reality it was a Sunni despotism, run of, by, and for Saddam Hussein, his family, his relatives in Tikrit, and then other Sunni Arabs, in widening circles of ever-diminishing loyalty. The Shi’a, who were fighting against centralized Sunni rule in the 1920s, have not failed to notice that the oil wealth went for the Sunni Arabs, though the only non-Kurdish oilfields were in the south, in Shi’a-populated lands. The Shi’a Arabs do not need the example or support of Iran to resent rule by the Sunni Arabs. They now constitute 65% of the population, while the Sunni Arabs make up less than 20% (but are convinced that they constitute more than twice that percentage). This was a fact as real as the fact of the Russian winter, and the long supply lines back to France, that Kutuzov took into account, in his calculations. But the Americans appear never to have thought that their effort in Iraq should be defined as anything other than improving the situation for people in Iraq – building them roads and schools and rebuilding power grids, pouring money into the country, and assuring everyone that the country, despite the history of ethnic and sectarian conflict, hardly limited to even if most murderous during the rule of, Saddam Hussein, could and should stay together. No one seemed to question this assumption, or the goals that, supposedly, either did or had something important to do with what would be called “victory” in Iraq.
The “surge” has “succeeded,” we are told, because now the conditions have been created in which political compromises can be made that will insure Iraq’s survival with manageable levels of violence. No one has suggested that this might not be desirable, that in fact every local incident between Shi’a and Sunni should be looked upon as, from the American viewpoint, or the Infidel viewpoint, highly desirable. Nor has there been any questioning of the American effort to discourage the Kurds from seeking independence, because there has not been any discussion of the effect of such a thing – the spectacle of non-Arab Muslims, attempting and even perhaps succeeding, at throwing off the Arab yoke – on the perception, by the world’s non-Arab Muslims, who constitute 80% of the total Muslim population, that the Arabs are not only hellbent on keeping Kurds from obtaining a state of their own, but are once again, in ways less mass-murdering than during the time of Saddam Hussein, indifferent or hostile to, any attempts at local autonomy by non-Arab Muslims. Berbers in Morocco and Algeria will watch, and draw their own conclusions, from an Arab attempt to put down the Kurds with violence, even under this new, supposedly benign Arab regime. So will black African Muslims in Darfur, and elsewhere. And the new note, that one can hear in the explanations, by some Pakistanis, in which they claim that, for example “honor killings” are merely the result not of what is in the Qur’an, but rather of the manners and customs of the desert Arabs who received, and then disseminated, Islam, implies a new tack: as the Infidels look more closely at, and become more critical of, aspects of Muslim behavior, non-Arab Muslims may find that to defend themselves, they will distance themselves from aspects of such behavior by claiming it is “culturally” inspired, the culture in question being that of the Arabs. But the next step is for Infidels to say that that may well be true, but the second pillar of Islam, at least for Sunni Arabs, is the Sunnah, which embodies the manners and customs of those Arabs of the seventh-century. In other words, it is still Islam – the Sunnah being part of Islam – that explains the persistence of such mistreatment of women.
The American military has not been given the example of Kutuzov. It is, instead, raised not to fashion policy but to complete tasks assigned to it, and in Iraq it was assigned the task of keeping Iraq intact, of transferring “democracy” (bringing, in Bush’s words, “freedom” to “ordinary moms and dads”), of creating the conditions for prosperity, because the civilian makers of policy have allowed themselves to believe that this “freedom” and this national unity and this “prosperity” will somehow make Muslims less Muslim in their inculcated hostility toward Infidels, somehow take the Islam out of Islam, rather than simply allowing them to continue to be part of a necessarily hostile (because Muslim) camp. There is no sign, for example, that General Petraeus has ever gone beyond his assigned task in Iraq, or in the now-similar tasks assigned to him for Afghanistan as part of a larger theatre that extends from Iraq to Pakistan, to consider exactly what the threat to the West is, the nature of that threat, and the chief instruments of that threat. If one knew, if one suspected, that General Petraeus had been reading deeply in the texts of Islam, had exercised imaginative sympathy and come to understand how these texts acted on the minds of men, how dangerous it was to assume that the texts of Islam, the tenets of Islam, the attitudes of Islam, could change, for they have changed, only slightly and only temporarily, not when Muslims were propped up, but when, as in the early decades of the last century, they felt themselves to be far weaker, obviously weaker, than a powerful and self-assured world of Infidel states. If one suspected that General Petraeus had been thinking in terms of a Camp of Islam, had taken note of the the Muslims now settled deep within the Western world, had grasped the meaning of, and centrality of, Jihad, had understood that far more than terrorism, the Money Weapon, campaigns of Da’wa, and demographic conquest were the most effective instruments to remove all obstacles to the spread, and the dominance, of Islam, and that whatever happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, however continually propped up by Western aid and Western efforts these countries or their regimes might be, this would do nothing to weaken the Camp of Islam or the threats, from that camp, in Western Europe.
What would someone schooled in the example of Kutuzov, conclude? He might conclude that, like Kutuzov, it would be best, in an age where resources must be husbanded and no longer squandered, as they have been so colossally in Iraq, or will be in even farther-off, even more difficult-to-control Afghanistan, to identify and then to exploit whatever pre-existing weaknesses exist in the enemy camp, the Camp of Islam. Both Iraq and Afghanistan present examples of nations that are not nations. Despite the rhetoric, there is no “Iraqi people.” There are Arabs and Kurds. Among the Arabs, there are Sunnis and Shi’a. The Shi’a will never surrender the power they have obtained. The Sunni Arabs will never reconcile themselves to their loss of power, especially not when behind them stand Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and Egypt, and the Sunni Arabs (if not the Alawite rulers) of Syria. The Shi’a make up about 10-15% of the world’s Muslims, Everywhere that Shi’a and Sunni exist side-by-side, there are problems between them. In Pakistan a Sunni terrorist group targets Shi’a. In Yemen, where their numbers are about equal, there are smoldering wars between the Shi’a tribes and the Sunni tribes. In Lebanon the Sunnis are alarmed at the new-found power of Hezbollah. In Bahrain, now openly claimed as part of Iran by the Islamic Republic, a Sunni ruling family, the Al Khalifa, maintains its power over a population that is 70% Shi’a, and discontent. In Saudi Arabia all of the Shi’a have been confined to the Eastern Province, where they suffer all kinds of discrimination, and regular, almost ritual, denunciation by Saudi Wahhabi clerics. Why would not a fight, an open fight, between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs in Iraq not have consequences outside of Iraq? Why would not co-religionists, on both sides, send in fighters, weapons, or money to pay for both? Why would not Iraq become the permanent fault-line between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, a reminder to both of their enmity?
And if the Kurds were to declare an independent state, a state that of course would enrage the Arabs – no Arabs, by the way, uttered a syllable of protest when Saddam Hussein was gassing Halabja or killing 182,000 Kurds in other ways, no Arabs protested the steady and deliberate arabization of Kurdish cities and villages, What better way to put before the world’s non-Arab Muslims the fact of Arab supremacism, and of Islam as a vehicle for that Arab supremacism, than the spectacle of Arabs suppressing Kurdish rights, ignoring Kurdish demands? And since the only sure ally of the Kurds would necessarily be the United States, the American government would have the power to extract promises from the Kurds not to make trouble for Turkey, but should they manage to establish such a state, to lay claim to Kurdish-populated parts of Iran and Syria, two states that need to be weakened, need to be made to worry about internal threats. Trouble in Kurdish-populated parts of Iran could also inspire, at the very same time, Arabs in Khuzistan, Baluchis in the Iranian-held parts of Baluchistan, and even perhaps Azeris, to stir up trouble against the Iranian authorities. These are all possibilities, things to consider, not things to count on.
And in Afghanistan, where the squandering of men, money, materiel, and morale may prove as great as in Iraq, there has been no thought, it seems, given to simply fighting from afar, monitoring with drones, planes, and satellites, favoring now this tribe and now that, and allowing Afghanistan to sink back into its customary state. Will some nice people suffer as a result? Of course they will. So what? Shall the Americans conquer Swat, so as to save Muslims, “moderate” Muslims, from the consequences of Islam itself, of those who take their Islam seriously? Would it not make more sense to have running at the same time several demonstration projects, not in nation-building, but rather in the effects of unchecked Islam, as we now have, for example, in Somalia? Why attempt to rescue now this country, and now that, from the effects of Islam itself? We want to immunize our own populations from the lure of Islam, we want to widen every conceivable pre-existing rift within Islam, we want to weaken the Camp of Islam and if that can be done, as Kutuzov did with the Grande Armee, by simply allowing things to take their wonted course, so be it.
American history is full of action. There is the conquering, and settling, of an ever-moving frontier. There is the Winning of the West. There is the development of a national economy. There are the tinkerers who invent better machines, or the entrepreneurs who find cleverer and more efficient ways to distribute goods, or manufacture, or market them. All of this involves not Kutruzovian passivity, but rather action. The Yankee Can-Do Spirit, the doughty belief in stick-to-it-iveness, even the recent, naïve insistence that everything that is not quite settled in the world becomes identified as a “problem” and thus, by implication, everything unsettled in the world is susceptible of a “solution” – these are part of the American mental makeup that do not meet the case, when the case is the unprecedented threat of Islam to non-Muslims everywhere. When, for example, Condoleezza Rice, or Bill Clinton, speak of the “two-state solution” to the Arab-Israeli dispute, that shows an ignorance of the nature of the war being made on the Infidel nation-state of Israel by Arabs and other Muslims, a war that has no end because Jihad has no end, and the existence of that Infidel nation-state, not its size, is what constitutes an intolerable affront, an affront to Islam and to Allah. But the very word “solution” is apparently enough to comfort those who speak in such terms, or those who listen to, and do not question, such terms.
It’s too bad.
Because Kutuzov, you see, won the war. He pulled back, and pulled back, and pulled back beyond Moscow. Historians differ on exactly what happened to cause the Moscow fire. Was it deliberately set, in order to deprive Napoleon’s troops of places to live, to make their lives unbearable in winter-time? Or was it, as Tolstoy suggests, simply a foreseeable consequence of huge numbers of foreigners, unused to Russian stoves and lamps, and many of them living in wooden izbas from which their Russian inhabitants had withdrawn and could not offer advice (even if the foreign soldiers could make themselves understood), that is the working out of fate? It hardly matters.
When Napoleon’s Grande Armee left Russia, and retreated across the border with fewer than 40,000 troops out of an original 600,000. It was the most spectacular defeat, inflicted by a general whose “wise passivity” prevailed over the advice of his clamoring generals, in modern history. Save for the losses at Borodino, the Russian military remained largely intact. Compare that with the two trillion dollars, in a time of great need, already spent or committed, in Iraq, and think of the sums now being spent in Afghanistan, and what that will do to the readiness of the American army, or even to the weapons systems it wished to buy, and will now be cancelled.
A little Kutuzovshchina (Kutuzovism) might be just the ticket for West Point cadets, and Fort Leavenworth colonels, and for Pentagon generals, and even, one might suggest, for civilian leaders in Congress and the White House. One more reason to favor leaders who are well-read.
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