Simon Parke: Never-ending war story

22 July 2009

EVEN Napoleon was shocked by what took place on 7 September 1812, near the Russian village of Borodino. “Of the 50 battles I have fought,” he said, “the most terrible was the one before Moscow.” Whether war has its good days is open to question; but it certainly has its bad days.

The recent deaths of eight young soldiers in Afghanistan, on a single day, reminded us that we are a country at war. As we go about our daily business, hearing no gunfire, we might almost imagine we are a country at peace, and therefore be shocked when the coffins come home, carried on military shoulders across the tarmac, draped in honour and the Union flag. Surely the war ended in 1945? Well, a war did end then, but not war itself, which continues in different clothes and different lands; and, in war, lest we forget, people are regularly killed.

On one day at Borodino, 70,000 soldiers are reckoned to have died. The Russians suffered more casual­ties than the French, but this was not significant for Tolstoy; it was war itself he had a problem with. He was aware of all the arguments against pacifism: patriotism, the protection of the defenceless, political common sense, and raw fear.

Set against these, however, were the Christian Gospels, in which Christ forbade his followers to take revenge, encouraging them instead to turn the other cheek, forgive their enemies, and bless those who perse­cuted them. Whatever scheme of things the “just war” fits into, it is certainly not this one. Which is probably why Tolstoy wrote in A Confession: “It is impossible to judge from a man’s conduct whether or not he is a Christian believer.” He allowed Christians to believe in war — as long as their opinions had nothing to do with the Gospels.

War is the never-ending story, because, like water in sodden earth, violence is written deep in the being of power. As even Tolstoy knew, with all his idealism, power will scrap and cudgel for its continuation; for the love of power does not go with good­ness, but, rather, “with the opposite qualities — pride, cunning and cruelty.”

The saddest sight in war: grieving families. The bravest sight: the re­maining soldiers carrying on the next day. The most disgraceful sight? Politicians sucking political capital out of the tears. Eight young men were killed that day because war is savage and immune to health-and-safety considerations.

You do not need to have witnessed either Borodino or Hiroshima to know that no war would pass a town-hall risk assessment. If you choose to be a country at war, you also choose to have coffins come home, in a slow military march.

Despite the horror of 7 September, Napoleon was undeterred, and pushed on towards Moscow. Of his 600,000 troops, 30,000 made it home alive.

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