War And Peace



THE COMBINATION of causes of phenomena is beyond the grasp of the human intellect. But the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man. And the human intellect, with no inkling of the immense variety and complexity of circumstances conditioning a phenomenon, any one of which may be separately conceived of as the cause of it, snatches at the first and most easily understood approximation, and says here is the cause. In historical events, where the actions of men form the subject of observation, the most primitive conception of a cause was the will of the gods, succeeded later on by the will of those men who stand in the historical foreground—the heroes of history. But one had but to look below the surface of any historical event, to look, that is, into the movement of the whole mass of men taking part in that event, to be convinced that the will of the hero of history, so far from controlling the actions of the multitude, is continually controlled by them. It may be thought that it is a matter of no importance whether historical events are interpreted in one way or in another. But between the man who says that the peoples of the West marched into the East, because Napoleon willed they should do so, and the man who says that that movement came to pass because it was bound to come to pass, there exists the same difference as between the men who maintained that the earth was stationary and the planets revolved about it, and the men who said that they did not know what holds the earth in its place, but they did know that there were laws controlling its motions and the motions of the other planets. Causes of historical events—there are not and cannot be, save the one cause of all causes. But there are laws controlling these events; laws partly unknown, partly accessible to us. The discovery of these laws is only possible when we entirely give up looking for a cause in the will of one man, just as the discovery of the laws of the motions of the planets has only become possible since men have given up the conception of the earth being stationary.

After the battle of Borodino, and the taking and burning of Moscow, historians consider the most important episode of the war of 1812 to be the movement of the Russian army from the Ryazan to the Kaluga road and to the Tarutino camp, the so-called oblique march behind Krasnaya Pahra. Historians ascribe the credit of this stroke of genius to various persons, and dispute to whom it is rightfully due. Even foreign, even French historians, admit the genius of the Russian generals when they mention this flank march. But why military writers, and others following their lead, assume this oblique movement to be a project profoundly planned by some one person for the deliverance of Russia and the overthrow of Napoleon it is very difficult to see. It is difficult in the first place to see wherein the profound wisdom and genius of this march lies; for no great intellectual effort is needed to guess that the best position for an army, when not being attacked, is where supplies are most plentiful. And every one, even a stupid boy of thirteen, could have guessed that the most advantageous position for the army in 1812, after the retreat from Moscow, would be on the Kaluga road. And so one cannot understand, in the first place, what conclusions led the historians to see some deep wisdom in this manœuvre. Secondly, it is even more difficult to understand why the historians ascribe to this manœuvre the deliverance of Russia and the overthrow of the French; for, had other circumstances preceded, accompanied, or followed it, this flank movement might as well have led to the destruction of the Russian army and the deliverance of the French. If the position of the Russian army did, in fact, begin to improve from the time of that march, it does not at all follow that the improvement was caused by it.

That oblique march might have been not simply of no use; it might have led to the destruction of the Russian army, but for the conjunction of other circumstances. What would have happened if Moscow had not been burnt? If Murat had not lost sight of the Russians? If Napoleon had not remained inactive? If, as Bennigsen and Barclay advised, the Russians had given battle near Krasnaya Pahra? What would have happened if the French had attacked the Russians when they were marching behind Pahra? What would have happened if later on Napoleon, on reaching Tarutino, had attacked the Russians with one-tenth of the energy with which he had attacked them at Smolensk? What would have happened if the French had marched to Petersburg? … On any of these hypotheses, the oblique march might have led to ruin instead of to safety.

The third point, most difficult of all to understand, is that students of history seem intentionally to refuse to see that this march cannot be ascribed to any one man, that no one foresaw it at any time, that, like the retreat to Fili, the manœuvre was, in reality, never conceived of by any one in its entirety, but arose step by step, incident by incident, moment by moment from a countless multitude of the most diverse circumstances, and is only conceived of in its entirety, when it is an accomplished fact, and has become the past.

At the council at Fili the accepted idea among the Russians—the course taken for granted in fact—was retreat in a direct line back, that is, along the Nizhni road. Evidence of this is that the majority of votes at the council were for adopting this course, and the commander-in-chief's famous conversation after the council with Lansky, the head of the commissariat department, is an even more striking proof of it. Lansky submitted to the commander-in-chief that the chief supplies for the army were stored along the Oka, in the Tula and Kazan provinces, and that if they retreated along the Nizhni road, the army would be cut off from its supplies by the broad river Oka, across which transport in the early winter was impossible. This was the first proof of the necessity of departing from the course that had at first seemed the most natural one, the retreat along the Nizhni road. The army kept more to the south along the Ryazan road, closer to its supplies. Later on the inactivity of the French, who positively lost sight of the Russian army, anxiety for the defence of the Tula arsenal, and above all, the advantage of being near their supplies led the army to turn even more to the south, to the Tula road. After crossing by a forced march behind Pahra to the Tula road, the generals of the Russian army intended to remain at Podolsk, and had no idea of the Tarutino position. But an infinite number of circumstances, among them the reappearance of French troops on the scene, and plans for giving battle, and most of all, the abundance of supplies in Kaluga, led our army to turn even more to the south, and to pass from the Tula to the Kaluga road to Tarutino, a central position between their lines of communication with their supplies. Just as it is impossible to answer the question what date Moscow was abandoned, it is impossible too to say precisely when and by whom it was decided to move the army to Tarutino. It was only after the army, through the action of innumerable infinitesimally small forces, had been brought to Tarutino, that people began to protest to themselves that that was the course they had desired, and had long foreseen as the right one.




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