One of five top books on peace he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Tales of Army LifeRead about another book Gittings discussed at The Browser.
by Leo Tolstoy
Your third pick is Tales of Army Life. Tell us about Tolstoy the soldier as well as Tolstoy the writer.
I chose this because most of us have read War and Peace, but many of us are less familiar with Tolstoy’s later life when he stressed his pacifist convictions in the most absolute of terms. There is a tendency to regard this as a personal development of Tolstoy’s which was almost out of keeping with what came before. But if you go back to his early experiences in the Caucasus and the Crimea as a young man in the 1840s, when he began to write about war – he reported from Sevastopol during the Crimean war – you already find in him a spirit of questioning the meaning of war, and why people are prepared to kill each other, which he continues to explore in War and Peace and which leads him eventually to his pacifist position.
His position is of categorical non-violence, and he comes closer to that earlier on than is often suggested. The very last paragraph of the very first story he wrote in Tales of Army Life, from the Caucasus, was suppressed by the Russian censor precisely because he asked the question, what is the reality of war? Why do soldiers, in what way and under what influence, kill one another? That was deemed unpatriotic, and I think just disturbed the censor, who probably couldn’t understand what Tolstoy was trying to say and struck it out.
The glorification of war in literature and elsewhere was presumably prevalent right up until today’s era, in which we know the gory detail through mass media coverage?
You’re perfectly right that war is no longer glorified in the simplistic terms in which it was before – although I would add that we are more aware of the glorification of war in the past than its condemnation. That is because history tends to be written if not by the victors, then by the warriors. There were popular voices raised against war in the past which are harder for us to hear today. For example, we know less of those who were opposed to the Crusades than those who were in favour of them. Nethertheless it is true that the almost childish glorification of war, which was still possible when war was fought by soldiers in gaily coloured uniforms and at a distance, is no longer possible. We don’t “rejoice rejoice” – although again I hesitate, because that term was used by Mrs Thatcher at the end of the Falklands war.
And American culture seems to take some relish in military prowess.
It does, and while we can all recognise the bravery of soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan today and sympathise with the sufferings of their families if they die, to call them “heroes” in a way is an afterglow of the glorification of war, even though it’s no longer usually expressed in such simple terms.