Wednesday, August 13, 2008

'War And Peace' And Time And Patience

This, from my brother-friend, Christopher Lydon, in response to Reza Aslan's and my Washington Post article about a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites:

Israel is in an existential crisis every day (so am I!) and she'd better think of better ways to ease it than war with giant countries that could hurt her bad. What you don't say in the Post, what you would surely say in any direct conversation with anyone, is: are you out of your fucking mind? There are too many logical, emotional and political absurdities in the formulations around war on Iran (yours too) to make rationalistic analysis even very interesting.

I am under a strong influence as I type: War and Peace, with about 75 pages to go in the Epilogue. Netanyahu and Ahmedinejad, and Putin and Bush-league, surely McCain and Barack, for a quick review, should read Tolstoy's epic denunciation of Napoleon, a thug and an outlaw, a conman and a stone killer, and of all these insanely self-stroking pols and generals and policy dudes who are encouraged to believe they are mastering reality and making history when in fact they are pathetic, insignificant little bugs threading nonsense words and sentiments together to justify killing people for no real reason whatsoever.

This Tolstoy boy is one majestic writer and thinker, and his book should have been the last word necessary on the
idiocy, the self-deception, the privilege, the wasted thinking, not to mention the cruelty and unfairness and staggering loss of war.

THERE ARE CONTEMPORARY figures and lessons all through it, but one in particular leapt out at me: a General Pfuel on the Russian staff who sounds like all our Neocons and especially Wolfowitz, or Douglas Feith or Richard Perle. Here's Tolstoy's version of ethnic humor.

"Pfuel was one of those hopeless opinionated, arrogant men who would go to the stake for their own ideas, self-assured as only a German can be, because only a German could be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea -- science, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he sees himself as devastatingly charming, mentally and physically, to men and women alike. An Englishman is self-assured on grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and also because as an Englishman he always knows the right thing to do and everything he does, because he is an Englishman, must be right. An Italian is self assured because he gets excited and easily forgets himself and everybody else.

"A Russian is self-assured because he knows nothing, and doesn't want to know anything because he doesn't believe you can know anything completely. A self-assured German is the worst of the lot, the most stolid and the most disgusting, because he imagines he knows the truth through a branch of science that is entirely his invention...Pfuel was one of those theorists who love their theory so dearly they lost sight of the aim of all theory, which is work out in practice... He positively rejoiced in failure, because failure was due to practical infringements of his theory, which went to show how right the theory was..."

The last line in the sketch makes him even more like Wolfowitz in Fahrenheit 911: "...This was eloquently confirmed by the uncombed tufts of hair sticking up on the back of his head, and the hurriedly brushed locks at his temples."

Tolstoy made up a lot of the wisdom he attributes to General Kutuzov, but I adore Kutuzov not a mite less, the old general who knew everything about war and made a triumphant strategy of avoiding it. "There's nothing stronger than those two old soldiers -- time and patience." And later: "Patience and time, these are my heroes of the battlefield."

I say we'll rue the day that the society allowed so many people to talk war, war, war as if it were a parlor game.

Actually, I read War and Peace in Jerusalem in the dark fall of 1973, just after the October War, and have a vivid memory of dreading that all the grand declarations and military moves and terrible grief I was reading about in the newspapers and watching on television--and feeling in the parlors of friends--would amount to nothing but material for some Tolstoy to "tsk, tsk" about fifty years hence. It is now 35 years later, and if Chris's admonition is any indication, we seem to be on track.