Applying Tolstoy to Today’s Rush to War

Rushing to war – justified by half-truths and propaganda – is a story as old as written history and the topic of great novelists like Leo Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina offers lessons for today’s stampede toward WWIII, says Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Russian literature is too important to be left to professors of Comp Lit or to Slavic Departments at our universities, as is so often the case with the novel that I propose to examine here, Leo Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina. Great literature is great precisely because of its multi-layered construction and the timelessness of the issues and considerations that constitute its substance.

Like War and Peace, Karenina has been the subject of many films going back to 1911, running through the 1930s with two classic versions featuring the legendary Greta Garbo and right up to time present and the widely discussed version released in 2012.

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

The novel has a core triangle, the relations between the heroine, her unloved and unloving husband who is 20 years her senior, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, and her lover, Prince Alexei Vronsky, for whom she gives up everything but does not find happiness or inner peace, seeing instead that her only way out is suicide. It is about love and passion, about the basic building block of all societies, the family.

This side of Anna Karenina has been especially highlighted in the film versions, being universally appealing and not tedious in the least. Indeed, the first (silent) Garbo film was entitled Love. The novel’s basic narrative is also about the relations between the sexes. The issues surrounding feminism, aired at length throughout the development of the core plot, speak to our present day with perfect clarity notwithstanding the passage of 140 years from the time the words were written.

It is easy to understand the feeling of any film director taking in hand this magnificent novel with its splendid story line and turning literature into cinema. However, what Tolstoy produced may also be described as a piece of documentary film-making as we understand the profession today. The side plots, the relief to the main plot, are not just ballast. They are the result of the author’s going through salons and clubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg, going through the meetings of the nobility among themselves in corpore at their assemblies and individually over tea at their country estates, going through the interchanges between these landlords and their peasants over how to use the new farm machinery they have introduced and how to split up the profits, these and many other topics of the day as if with a team of cameramen and sound operators who record every word.

The whole of Russian society was “tape recorded” by Leo Tolstoy and its thinking on a great variety of subjects was set out in Karenina for our perusal.

Tolstoy’s enthusiasm for his role of public chronicler was such that he ignored the rules of the novel and continued the narration for more than 50 pages beyond the suicide of his heroine. It is to those last pages of the novel that I direct attention today, because the issues and the thinking about those issues recorded by Tolstoy parallel what we see around us today in the United States as we head into what may well be World War III.

Anna Karenina was written over the course of five years, from 1873 to 1877 and during that time the topics which predominated in the salons Tolstoy visited changed from domestic concerns like the effectiveness of the institutions of local self-government and justices of the peace introduced with the Great Reforms of the 1860s, the viability of noble estates as agricultural units in an age of railway construction and industrialization to one topic of international relations and Russia’s standing in the world.

The Slavophile movement was gathering speed and reached its culmination in the final year that Tolstoy wrote his novel, when, in the context of brutal massacres of Bulgarians, Serbs and other peoples in the Balkans seeking to cast off the Ottoman yoke, Russian civilians were volunteering in the hundreds and thousands to join their Slavic brethren for a decisive fight against the Turks.

Enthusiasm for Battle

The enthusiasm for battle in Russian liberal society, what we can the “country party,” was viewed skeptically, like any popular movement outside its control, by the tsarist authorities and their loyal supporters, whom we shall call the “court party.” This distrust on the part of authorities was all the more keen as it infringed on the monarchy’s key role of managing foreign and defense policy.51lkuhnlbtl-_sy445_ql70_

And, in the end, this distrust was well placed because the popular enthusiasm ultimately engaged the Russian imperial forces in a new war with the Ottoman Empire in 1877-78 which, though victorious on the battlefield, ended in a humiliating setback to Russia’s international standing when mediated by the Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin.

What occurred in 1878 was not a mere historical curiosity, but instead was a “dry run” for the conflict 36 years later which we all know as World War I. In 1914, as well, the “country party” and the “court party” were divided over the inevitability and desirability of the coming war with Austria-Hungary and its ally Prussia.

If I may change labels, it was the Realists (or court party) against the Romantic Nationalists (the country party) who were under the spell of ideology. This question has been examined in magisterial fashion by historian Dominic Lieven in his recent book The End of Tsarist Russia.

In Anna Karenina, the stormy debates between conservative monarchist and progressive noble elites over what should be done in the Balkans are embodied by his characters. The second or third most important personage in the novel, Prince Vronsky, is shown departing for Serbia together with a squadron of soldiers under his protection. His enthusiasm for the South Slav cause is shown to be an accidental consequence of his loss of Anna and of all reason to live.

By the same token, the volunteer soldiers boarding their train to the south for transfer to Serbia are depicted as drunkards, failed gamblers and other marginal persons in what is a clear tip-off of Tolstoy’s own feelings about war in general and this war in particular. But there is no reason to guess, Tolstoy’s views of the forces leading to war are expressed most clearly through the voices of his alter-ego, Konstantin Levin, the forever naïve and self-questioning hero of the novel, a provincial farmer-nobleman, and his father-in-law, Prince Shcherbatsky, the representative of an older generation raised under pre-Reform values.

When history repeats itself, the parties to conflicts do not necessarily occupy the same sides of a given argument. In the 1870s, Russian liberal society was deeply moved by the notion of humanitarian intervention, virtually in the same sense as this has become a fixture of the American political establishment and driver of foreign policy since Bill Clinton’s presidency in the U.S.

The voice for humanitarian intervention in Anna Karenina is Levin’s half brother, Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev, a Moscow intellectual, for whom the Pan-Slav cause has given him a preoccupation to fill his days and sense of purpose.

Below is the argumentation adduced in favor of the intervention in the Southern Balkans by the “country party” through Sergei Ivanovich. If we put aside the Christian factor, which today is so scorned in our  politically correct multiculturalism, you will find points very similar to what is today being adduced by American and European commentators in their expressions of horror over the Syrian-Russian bombing of east Aleppo and their urgent calls for humanitarian action:

“There is no question here of a declaration of war, but simply the expression of human Christian feeling. Our brothers, one with us in religion and in race, are being massacred. Even supposing they were not our brothers nor fellow-Christians, but simply children, women, old people, feeling is aroused and Russians go eagerly to help in stopping these atrocities. Fancy, if you were going along the street and saw drunken men beating a woman or a child – I imagine you would not stop to inquire whether war had been declared on the men, but would throw yourself on them, and protect the victim.”

To which, Sergei Ivanovich adds: “The people have heard of the sufferings of their brethren and have spoken.”

Levin casts the first stone against this blanket assertion: “Perhaps so,” he said evasively, “but I don’t see it. I’m one of the people myself, and I don’t feel it.”

Self-Interest for War

The old prince Shcherbatsky drives home the point: “I’ve been staying abroad and reading the papers, and I must own, up to the time of the Bulgarian atrocities, I couldn’t make out why it was all the Russians were all of a sudden so fond of their Slavonic brethren, while I didn’t feel the slightest affection for them. I was very much upset, thought I was a monster, or that it was the influence of Carlsbad on me. But since I have been here, my mind’s been set at rest. I see that there are people besides me who’re only interested in the yoke of Russia, and not in their Slavonic brethren.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria "Toria" Nuland, delivers his opening remarks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the outset of a bilateral meeting on July 15, 2016, in Moscow. [State Department photo]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria “Toria” Nuland, delivers his opening remarks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the outset of a bilateral meeting on July 15, 2016, in Moscow. [State Department photo]

They ask a peasant standing by, Mihalich, about his views on the subject. Of course, Mihalich has no views, deferring to whatever position the tsar may hold, and Levin presses on:

“That word ‘people’ is so vague,” said Levin. “Parish clerks, teachers, and one in a thousand of the peasants, maybe, know what it’s all about. The rest of the eighty millions, like Mihalich, far from expressing their will, haven’t the faintest idea what there is for them to express their will about. What right have we to say that this is the people’s will?”

To this, Sergei Ivanovich responds in a way that lays bare what “public opinion” is all about. In my view, the exchange of opinions have direct relevance to where we, in American society, find ourselves today over the prosecution of our “humanitarian intervention” and “values guided” foreign policy in Syria at a moment when a great hue and cry has gone up over the killing in east Aleppo:

Sergey Ivanovitch: “let us look at society. … All the most diverse sections of the educated public, hostile before, are merged in one. Every division is at an end, all the public organs say the same thing over and over again, all feel the mighty torrent that has overtaken them and is carrying them in one direction.”

“Yes, all the newspapers do say the same thing,” said the prince.

“That’s true. But so it is the same thing that all the frogs croak before a storm. One can hear nothing for them.”

“Frogs or no frogs, I’m not the editor of a paper and I don’t want to defend them, but I am speaking of the unanimity in the intellectual world,” said Sergey Ivanovich, addressing his brother.

“Well, about that unanimity, that’s another thing, one may say,” said the prince, continuing: “So it is with the unanimity of the press. That’s been explained to me: as soon as there’s a war their incomes are doubled. How can they help believing in the destinies of the people and the Slavonic races … and all that?”

In effect, what Tolstoy was describing in these passages is precisely the “group think” of his day, when all of educated society and all the arbiters of public opinion in the print media were whipping up a pro-war fury that no one could publicly resist. So it is now, with the calls of our newspapers of record, of our major media and of the leading candidate for the presidency of the United States demanding a show of force in Syria, under the innocuous terms of imposing a “no-fly zone” and setting up “safe havens for refugees,” to put a halt to the killing in east Aleppo being perpetrated by the Syrian armed forces, in close collaboration with the Russian air force and Iranian fighters on the ground.

These voices of the Western establishment make these calls, willfully ignoring the plainly stated warning of the chief of Russian operations in Syria that the newly installed air defense systems will shoot down any unidentified planes or cruise missiles entering Syrian air space, even at the price of heading us into World War III.

The Western media and politicians today are all croaking like frogs before the storm. And the American public is as ignorant about the background issues to the present crisis in Syria, about the nefarious activities of their own and allied forces in support of the Islamic jihadist rebels controlling east Aleppo, just as Mihalich was ignorant about the issues surrounding the coming Balkan war. This “ostrich effect” is the true nature of modern day isolationism in the United States.

I close this review of the highly relevant exposition of reasoning about drivers of foreign policy in Anna Karenina by quoting Tolstoy’s recommended cure for the war fever of the arbiters of public opinion:

“I would only make one condition,” pursued the old prince. “Alphonse Karr said a capital thing before the war with Prussia. ‘You consider war to be inevitable? Very good. Let everyone who advocates war be enrolled in a special regiment of advance guards, for the front of every storm, of every attack, to lead them all’!”

“’A nice lot the editors would make!’ said Katavasov, with a loud roar, as he pictured the editors he knew in this picked legion.”

To update this proposal, I believe that our special forces operating illegally on the ground in Aleppo for the coordination and technical support of the jihadist rebels and “moderate opposition” to President Assad will very willingly trade places with an incoming special regiment of storm troopers drawn from the likes of Robert Kagan, William Kristol and Victoria Nuland, the irresponsible loudmouths who claim to speak for the American people and who are in fact leading us to collective suicide.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

42 comments for “Applying Tolstoy to Today’s Rush to War

  1. Marshall
    October 16, 2016 at 17:29

    We ought to send all of the neocons a copy of the movie, The Day After. It changed Ronald Reagan’s mind about nuclear war.

  2. Curious
    October 15, 2016 at 22:04

    Thank you for your article Mr Doctorow,

    Since Anna Karenina was my favorite book while studying I find it remarkable to take on the task of comparing human emotions about war taken from the 1870s and stretching it into the current “group think” of today. A valiant task.

    After one takes the time to get past the names and some dense backgrounds, it is a great book indeed.

    After reading the comments here as well, I wonder if we also know how complicated any nuclear exchange may be in todays world. A plutonium bomb could make a surrounding area uninhabitable for 20,000 years, give or take a few thousand years.

    Along with the Kagens, Nulands, Kristols, McCains, of the USA in the front lines, I would add the generals, and the lifers in the military who know nothing but war, which has replaced their bloodstream with conflict over humanity. Let Ash Carter be the first to hold a baseball sized ball of plutonium in his hand and juggle with it as he spreads more lies.

    I can’t help but be amazed at so many comparisons of past conflicts in the world without a proper qualification of how nuclear weapons are different. We have no idea what a nuclear war strategy is, or could be, as we can only compare the past without those weapons.

    Let’s ask the next politician who plays mind games with the public if he or she has camped out near Area 51, where the US exploded a plutonium bomb to see what its half life would be, and how long they camped there and looked at the stars while they checked their geiger counters.

    They have to be forced into a nuclear discussion.

    I’m angry at the ignorance and tolerance of nuclear weapons and it has to stop. Outside of that anger, I enjoyed your exploration of Tolstoy and the application of his nuanced human conditions, stretching into the emotions of today.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    October 13, 2016 at 13:20

    “THE THIEF COMES NOT BUT TO STEAL, KILL, AND DESTROY” —- (Objective of US “National Interests”)

    How Long are People Going to be Willing to Live in this Illusion?
    By Michael Hudson

  4. J'hon Doe II
    October 13, 2016 at 12:06

    “Rushing to war – justified by half-truths and propaganda” –

    It’s mercilessly troubling that truth is unrecognized, and worse, not zealously desired by lemming-like Americans. The below excerpt is a dose of reality for those residing within the bubble of easy-believeism and ‘please don’t bother me with facts’ —

    Why the New Silk Roads Terrify Washington

    By Pepe Escobar

    The “American lake”

    Neocon/neoliberalcon Washington is totally paralyzed in terms of formulating a response – or at least a counter-proposal – to Eurasia integration. A few solid IQs at least may understand that China’s “threat” to the US is all about economic might. Take Washington’s deep hostility towards the China-driven AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank). Yet no amount of hardcore US lobbying prevented allies such as Germany, Britain, Australia and South Korea from joining in.

    Then we had the mad dash to approve TPP – the China-excluding, NATO-on-trade arm of the pivot to Asia that was meant to be the cherry of the mostly flat Obama global economic policy cake. Yet the TPP as it stands is practically dead.

    What the current geopolitical juncture spells out is the US Navy willing to go no holds barred to stop China from strategically dominating the Pacific, while TPP is deployed as a weapon to stop China dominating Asia-Pacific economically.

    With the pivot to Asia configured as a tool to “deter Chinese aggression”, exceptionalists have graphically demonstrated how they are incapable of admitting the whole game is about post-ideological supply chain geopolitics. The US does not need to contain China; what it needs, badly, is key industrial, financial, commercial connection to crucial nodes across Asia to (re)build its economy.

    Those were the days, in March 1949, when MacArthur could gloat, “the Pacific is now an Anglo-Saxon lake”. Even after the end of the Cold War the Pacific was a de facto American lake; the US violated Chinese naval and aerial space at will.

    Now instead we have the US Army War College and the whole Think Tankland losing sleep over sophisticated Chinese missiles capable of denying US Navy access to the South China Sea. An American lake? No more.

    The heart of the matter is that China has made an outstanding bet on infrastructure building – which translates into first-class connectivity to everyone – as the real global 21st century commons, way more important than “security”. After all a large part of global infrastructure still needs to be built. While China turbo-charges its role as the top global infrastructure exporter – from high-speed rail to low-cost telecom – the “indispensable” nation is stuck with a “pivoting”, perplexed, bloated military obsessed with containment.

    Divide and rule those “hostile” rivals

    Well, things haven’t changed much since Dr. Zbig “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski dreaming in the late 1990s of a Chinese fragmentation from within, all the way to Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy, which is no more than futile rhetorical nostalgia about containing Russia, China and Iran.

    Thus the basket of attached myths such as “freedom of navigation” – Washington’s euphemism for perennially controlling the sea lanes that constitute China’s supply chain – as well as an apotheosis of “China aggression” incessantly merging with “Russia aggression”;after all, the Eurasia integration-driven Beijing-Moscow strategic partnership must be severed at all costs.

    Why? Because US global hegemony must always be perceived as an irremovable force of nature, like death and taxes (Apple in Ireland excluded).

    Twenty-four years after the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guide, the same mindset prevails; “Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival…to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union and southwest Asia”.

    Oops. Now even Dr. Zbig “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski is terrified. How to contain these bloody silky roads with Pentagon “existential threats” China and Russia right at the heart of the action? Divide and Rule – what else?

  5. Realist
    October 13, 2016 at 01:20

    I see the generalised human phenomenon of “group think” operative at a distance of over a hundred years and over many thousands of miles. But then, group think is what got Julius Caesar killed two millennia ago. It’s very common and persistent. Any proffered analogy between the “Country Party” of Czarist Russia and the R2P liberal interventionists seems to me to be a false one. The “Romantic Nationalist” may have actually believed what they bespoke. The R2P people are total frauds, camouflaging their drive to conquer under the pretenses of “protecting” a bunch of foreigners they really hate and have worked hard to destroy in parallel conflicts. If we are to believe that they actually care about the citizens of East Aleppo and want only to save them from the war crimes perpetrated by the inhuman Russians, how does one explain Fallujah? How does one explain all of Iraq, dating back, not just to Dubya, but to Bushdaddy and later to Bill Clinton? Having explained all of our good deeds in Iraq without growing a nose the length of a telephone pole, try moving on to Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, and now Yemen. You know, all the seven wars (and more!) that Obomber gloats about overseeing on his watch. No shrinking violet peacenik is he! All that killing and maiming, all the torture, all the wanton destruction of infrastructure and displacement of people was done because we love people and only want to help? Give me a fucking break! There isn’t even a parallel of saving Christians from wanton Mohammedans, as the Czarist Russians tried to do for their Orthodox brethren against the Turks back in the 1870’s. In the case of Iraq, Libya and Syria, American intervention has resulted in the deaths or expulsion of tens of thousands of Middle Eastern Christians, in some cases completely exterminating sects that date back to the well-spring of Christianity itself. George Bush and Barack Obama have accomplished an extirpation of Middle Eastern Christianity not seen since the Crusaders were sent packing by the locals, and it’s going to get much worse if Obama’s “moderate” headchoppers are allowed to win in Syria. But the American hegemonists don’t really care, that’s not why they have inserted themselves into these countries. Only if Nuland and Kerry were waterboarded would they admit the truth: the locals, whether they live or die, are just chess pieces in a grand proxy war against Russia which, along with China, must be crushed as the last remaining competitors to full spectrum American dominance of the entire planet. And, should those lunatics succeed, I’ll bet they couldn’t even tell you what had been gained for the human race from all the deaths, destruction and suffering they have caused. I think it basically just comes down to winners and losers–numbers on a hypothetical scoreboard–to these people. Yeah, life is now much worse for everyone, but WE won and that’s what’s important. As incoherent as Trump may be when he speaks on the matter, he is nowhere near as crazy as the neocons and liberal interventionists.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 13, 2016 at 01:51

      Very well put, Realist. You are one hundred percent right, how this pursuit by the U.S. for world hegemony is so obsessively important that by hook or by crook or by any other means we will do this, or die going after it. Nothing should be that important that so many lives would be lose in this warring process. I’m sure the world’s resources could be split up reasonably in some kind of equitable terms to be fair to the investment elite. The developed nations would only profit even more by helping the struggling class found in the third and fourth world. America would be wise to follow China’s lead with it’s own Silk Road projects. Why not join in a coalition of nations, and bring back this time an uncorrupted (no CIA) Marshall plan. Imagine with less than half of what we have paid to be in Iraq and Afghanistan we could have created the world’s greatest infrastructure program….programs. Labor to would make money, real productivity would abound. It’s time to stop pounding nails, and start raising crops. The renewable energy business is the next America on Wheels, or the next Silicone Valley, if we want this. First you need leadership to bring this to the fore front. Instead we are debating over groping girls, or what’s to be found in the next email leak…I tried waking up, until I realized I hadn’t gone to bed yet. Kind of like a Rod Sterling TwiLight Zone mixed with Nightmare on Elm Street effect, but don’t worry about me, just go save yourself.

      • Realist
        October 13, 2016 at 03:00

        Precisely. The risk/benefit ratio is totally insane for both the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts. If you believe what our government mouthpieces say, we are willing to suffer the consequences of a thermonuclear war with Russia just so Uncle Sam gets to pick the leaders of those countries. Golly gee, assuming we avoid nuclear incineration, one of the perks of our “winning” would be the obligation to rebuild those countries after having had such a major hand in destroying them. They tell us we can’t even afford to rebuild our own infrastructure, and we are going to reconstruct Syria and Ukraine? To quote Dubya: “won’t get fooled again.” What would it mean to lose such an insane risky bet? Total annihilation, for one. I think most of us would agree that running Syria and/or Ukraine was simply not worth that investment. Short of our extinction, the all-out war that the interventionists seem to want will cost us dearly, especially if we should lose and receive both a moral judgement from history and perhaps reparations demanded by international courts. It means this country would have much less influence and wealth for the foreseeable future. Why put that all on the line? Obama and Kerry seemed close to cutting their losses and accepting a negotiated settlement (everybody loses, but not as much as they could if we go all in), until Ash Carter and the Pentagon decided to carry out a silent mini-coup, pre-empt Obama’s orders and take us back to the brink. If Obama had any intelligence and guts, he’d hitch up his p*ssy, fire Carter and a slough of other neocons and settle this peaceably before the Queen of Chaos replaces him in office. That’s the way out of this. What are the chances of the world making it through four years with Hitlery at the helm?

        • Joe Tedesky
          October 13, 2016 at 10:49

          The thin sane line may be found among the layer of people under the elite of our country. Hopefully someday soon these worker bees will sting back against their superiors. Do you recall when Yeltsins army would not open fire on the protesting public? This is a lot to base your hopes on, but it does make one ponder a bit to if some kind of sanity could prevail at a time when it would be good for sanity to prevail. I just don’t see why our foreign policy must be distributed by a B52.

        • backwardsevolution
          October 13, 2016 at 14:18

          Kennedy tried that, firing people. He died soon afterwards. Of course, you are right, that is what Obama ‘should’ do. He should have done a lot of things, like fire Loretta Lynch after she talked to Bill Clinton on the tarmac and did not immediately resign. He should have fired Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer (both are back at their white collar defense counsel jobs at Covington & Burling) when they did not go after the bankers for fraud. Should have, could have…..and round and round we go. Mike Whitney had this to say in “Obama Stepped Back from Brink, Will Hillary?”:

          “Fortunately, there are signs that Obama got the message and put the kibosh on the (Pentagon’s?) ridiculous plan. Here’s a clip from an article at The Duran which may be the best news I’ve read about Syria in five years. This story broke on Friday and has been largely ignored by the major media:

          ‘Following Russian warning of American aircraft being shot down, White House spokesman confirms plan for U.S. air strikes on Syria has been rejected….White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed this speaking to reporters on Thursday 6th October 2016.

          ‘The president has discussed in some details why military action against the Assad regime to try to address the situation in Aleppo is unlikely to accomplish the goals that many envisioned now in terms of reducing the violence there. It is much more likely to lead to a bunch of unintended consequences that are clearly not in our national interest.” (“U.S. backs down over Syria after Russian threat to shoot down American aircraft,” Alexander Mercouris, The Duran)’

          As critical as I’ve been of Obama over the years, I applaud him for his good judgment. While the Pentagon warhawks and foreign policy hardliners are relentlessly pushing for a direct confrontation with Russia, Obama has wisely pulled us back from the brink of disaster.

          The question is: Would Hillary do the same?”

    • backwardsevolution
      October 13, 2016 at 13:47

      Realist – really well said, so true. These people could care less who they crush; they just want to win. Like playground bullies, they control the monkey bars. Good rant.

  6. Greg Macy
    October 12, 2016 at 23:58

    Bravo!!!! Hillary can lead the charge of the light brigade into the teeth of a Russian gun battery!

  7. Ol' Hippy
    October 12, 2016 at 14:43

    If Russian literature is the topic and war part of the discussion may I suggest: “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin written before “1984” and “Brave New World”. It is a scathing indictment on things to come in Soviet Russia; one of the principal parts being the 200 years war and how they reformed society to avoid wars in the future. Just amazing the amount of insight. I’ll start reading more Russian literature in the future. Maybe we can avoid a future WW III but I remain skeptical at this time,

  8. Paul
    October 12, 2016 at 14:19

    A great pleasure to read, Mr. Doctorow, and I applaud any effort to draw more attention to the greatest novel ever written. If I have a quibble, it would only be to add that there is a fair amount of evidence that the “court” itself — in the person of Czar Nicholas II — was part of the romantic party prior to WWI. Tragically, the realist advisers to the czar were ignored.

    But the basic point that the U.S. needs a big injection of international relations’ realism (of the Morgenthau and Mearsheimer variety, I would add) at the moment could hardly be more urgent.

    One does not have to be dogmatic in one’s pacifism (as Tolstoy eventually became) to see the truth that war in the modern age is quite often the product of propaganda, and even, as you suggest, a sort of diversion for idle elites, who get bored (in the U.S. case) if they are not creating a nice revolution somewhere, spreading the new American Religion.

    • Kiza
      October 12, 2016 at 23:08

      Yes Paul, your view is, like the view of most Westerners here and elsewhere, that the Tsar was a political romantic and that the Russian intervention on behalf of the Southern Slavs ultimately lead to his and his family’s deaths and the end of classical Russia.

      But you all conveniently neglect something else that Dr Doctorow mentions only in passing, what I call an unintended parallel between Tolstoy and Syria:
      “…the popular enthusiasm ultimately engaged the Russian imperial forces in a new war with the Ottoman Empire in 1877-78 which, though victorious on the battlefield, ended in a humiliating setback to Russia’s international standing when mediated by the Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin.”

      In other words, the “great” Western powers of the time, after a huge sacrifice by the Southern Slavs and Russian volunteers to liberate the Christian Balkans from the Turks, sided with the Turks, mostly to keep Russian power in check and prevent the influence or even incorporation of its Southern Slav “brothers” into the Russian empire. Now this is a valid parallel between Anna Karenina time and today – the Orthodox Christians must always consider the Western Christians as much their enemies as the Muslims (Turks). Anything the Russians do to help their cousins (South Slavs) or friends (Syria), the West has always interpreted as a challenge to its dominance and Russia had to either face war with the West or to accept the impositions of the Congress of Berlin, then as now in Syria. But then, also, the “Christian” US dropped a nuclear bomb on the Christian Nagasaki, so maybe it is not as personal, maybe the West is just not Christian then devil worshipping.

      I could actually expand on this important point even more, start the “history talk” from the time of religious schism of the year 1054, but I am sure that most commenters here are happy just to congratulate Dr Doctorow on his anti-war parallel.

      • Brad Owen
        October 13, 2016 at 07:33

        It’s now forgotten by Americans that all throughout our history as a sovereign Republic, with serious enmity issues concerning the British Empire (who always regarded us as a rogue break-away Colony of theirs, and our republican ideas a serious threat to their rulers), the Russian Empire has ALWAYS been an ally to us since Catherine the Great, in an effort to counter British animosity towards them, and us. There has ALWAYS been a Patriot/Tory contest over here, that tracks with who is our enemy, and who is our friend (Plan Red/ Plan Orange in the 1920s regarded correctly , the British Empire as our enemy, and Russia a traditional ally…they were the ONLY European power to give naval support to Lincoln in our Civil War, provoked by British agents). Tory dominance was achieved since the death of FDR…and we’re part of Empire once again…but this too will change.

  9. Bill Bodden
    October 12, 2016 at 13:33

    In his fascinating book, The Politics of War, Walter Karp discusses America’s entries into the Spanish-American War and the First World War that show, similar to Tolstoy, once the momentum for war gets sufficient thrust war becomes almost inevitable.

    As for getting the warmongers in the first of the invading legions, that may have little effect on future wars. Many leading warmongers served their apprenticeships in war zones from and before Winston Churchill to Senators John McCain, Tom Cotton and others. If I recall correctly the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were diligent supporters of the Iraq war.

  10. Kim Dixon
    October 12, 2016 at 12:17

    Even worse, according to Stephen F Cohen, the sharpest Russian scholar in the US, Russia is so convinced that the Neocons *will not stop* that they are preparing the nation for WWIII. Not for war sometime in the far future. They are preparing for war *right now*.

  11. Bob Van Noy
    October 12, 2016 at 12:02

    ”To update this proposal, I believe that our special forces operating illegally on the ground in Aleppo for the coordination and technical support of the jihadist rebels and “moderate opposition” to President Assad will very willingly trade places with an incoming special regiment of storm troopers drawn from the likes of Robert Kagan, William Kristol and Victoria Nuland, the irresponsible loudmouths who claim to speak for the American people and who are in fact leading us to collective suicide.” Gilbert Doctorow

    Thank you Dr. Doctorow and possibly we can entice Hillary, Henry, and Zibig to lead the charge?

  12. Joe Tedesky
    October 12, 2016 at 10:40

    If I caught the drift of this article right, we are talking about the various opinions a society may have, as it leads itself up to war. Our current times and the varieties of interest that are guiding us will certainly one day be analyzed by historians to a great depth. If the U.S. should end up on top, then the Neocon/R2P/Zionist will look good, but if the U.S. should wind up on the bottom, then these same groups of people will more than likely be demonized to the end of time. I personally feel for the poorly uninformed who by their simple means fall for these warmongers manufactured lies. It’s the good people who die in war, that I most feel sorry for. The needle broke on the barometer of deceit a longtime ago, and we the public are the ones who got fooled not only once, but twice, and yet again three times, and mostly because we believed in these charlatans of power. The only thing in history that changes are the dates.

    • Peter Loeb
      October 13, 2016 at 05:49


      I once had a copy of Anna Karenina and every few years I would try again
      to read it. After beginning, I would get bogged down and give up.
      There was too damn much aristocracy.

      In most cases I am a fantic fan of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who hated Toltstoy
      I understand). In recent translations by a couple, I value D’s persistent
      confrontation of what we say we do. In most of D’s novels, we are “told”
      what “the answer” is: why people did as they claimed, why
      actions were done. But in my mind, nothing is really persuasive.
      Whatever is said or done, each brother did indeed have a motive and
      more to murder his father. And so, D. is testing all of us. I recommend
      these relatively recent translations of Dostoyevsky’s works.

      The Garbo film of Anna K. was, as I recall (I was a child then) amazing.

      Most probably I missed a great deal in Tolstoy’s aristocratic
      treatises. I am glad some have made it past the first few

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

      • Joe Tedesky
        October 13, 2016 at 10:39

        I remember how on September 12 of 2001 how I called the Navy recruiter to see if there was something I could contribute to the effort to help protect our country. My daughter and one year granddaughter who lived across the street from the WTC had to leave their home, and I was really shook up, as many others were. At that time I took the news to heart that everything was what it appeared to be. It wasn’t long afterwards that I became disappointed with the strategy the U.S. was employing. By the time we had a Department of Homeland Security, and TSA guards started to be stationed at every airport, I then started to peal away from the establishments programs. What we should all do, is celebrate not going to war.

      • backwardsevolution
        October 13, 2016 at 13:25

        Peter Loeb – one thing that both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky had in common? They both loved Dickens. While imprisoned in Siberia, that is all Dostoyevsky wanted to read. Tolstoy’s wife said that he used to read excerpts from Dickens’ books to the family, and he would laugh – they all would. She said that whenever Tolstoy would start reading Dickens, she knew he was about to write a novel. Dickens’ writing would somehow inspire him.

        I think you would enjoy “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Tolstoy. It’s a great short story that asks the question: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” Too bad some of the warmongers in Washington don’t ask that question of themselves. I bet they don’t dare; they couldn’t handle the answer.

        On a side note, I visited the grave site of what is potentially Czar Nicholas II’s son. Interesting little story. If true, at least one child made it out.

        “The marker bears the double-headed eagle of the Russian Imperial Family. Below the flag is the name Romanov: His Imperial Highness Alexei Nicolaievich Czarevitch Sovereign Heir Grand Duke of Russia.

        If the remains beneath the stone are those of that Alexei, he was son of Czar Nicholas II, heir to the Russian throne.

        Alexei was allegedly killed with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918 following the Russian Revolution the previous year, but his remains have never been identified, creating another mystery around a family that has many.”

  13. Wobblie
    October 12, 2016 at 10:34

    Pretty interesting.

    The ruling class will not stop warring because it’s part of their condition as the ruling class. They will not stop until the masses are decimated and wasted, or unless they’re stopped.

  14. Gregory Kruse
    October 12, 2016 at 09:55

    This is a riveting review. I am compelled to re-read “Anna”.

  15. Kiza
    October 12, 2016 at 09:54

    Dr. Doctorow, with respect, your comparison of Anna Karenina prose about the war against Turkey in XIX century and the situation in Syria and Aleppo is one of the biggest stretches I have ever read in my life. Yes, on the absolute top, superficial level there is a similarity between most wars that humans fight, but this is where the similarity between the two situations ends.

    The war of Orthodox Christians to expel the Turks from the Balkans was a truely Good War, the war of liberation against a ruthless killing foreign invader of a totally different religion. The war against Syria is a war by terrorists and mercenaries on one of the most secular and most tolerant countries in the Middle East, a war supported by its neighbors with designs on its territory (US is involved only because it is an Israeli puppet). Yes, the USraeli propaganda about Aleppo uses a similar language as Tolstoy’s idealists in Anna Karenina, but comparing the two is equivalent to saying that the truth and the lies sound similar, and they do – this is why it is hard to tell them apart.

    In summary, the Souths Slavs were and the Syrian people are fighting the Good War, the Turks were and the USrael are the aggressors. The rhetoric of both the Good War side and the Aggression side sound similar, what is new? Do you consider liars to be so stupid to join the “advance guard” and be the first to fight, instead of making juicy war profits far removed from the suffering caused by what they advocated? I honestly miss your point.

    • Gregory Kruse
      October 12, 2016 at 10:01

      The Syrian people are “fighting the Good War”? You may have missed Doctorow’s point, honestly or not, but at least he has one.

      • Kiza
        October 12, 2016 at 10:41

        Good that there are defenders, but it would be even better if the self-appointed defenders tried to understand what they are defending. Blanket defences, honestly or not, are on sale this week.

    • Kiza
      October 12, 2016 at 10:37

      I read your text again. You interpret Tolstoy correctly – he records the discussions in the Russian salons (the equivalent of today’s MSM) about whether Russia should get involved or not, regardless of the fact that their South Slav “brothers” are suffering in a Good War (Tolstoy does not define such thing). Involvement in any kind of war, good or bad, is a very complex issue, loaded with ethical ambiguity, which Tolstoy reflect so well. From memory, he does not give a definitive answer, probably because a definitive answer is not possible.

      Where your comparison fails completely is that in Tolstoy’s time the lying industry such is MSM did not exist. Tolstoy’s is a discussion between the interventionists (idealists) and the non-interventionists: are the South Slavs our brothers, is their fight really our fight, would this fight endanger the survival of our monarchy and state, that is our own survival and so on. Where does the duty to help fellow humans start and where does it end? The ultimate ethical questions are: is there truly such thing as a Good War, does anything justify killing people even for some good cause such as freedom? What did Buddha say, what did Christ say, what did philosophers say?

      Now how does this square with White Helmet produced videos (paid for by the aggressors) of the suffering in the terrorist occupied part of Aleppo?

      • Kiza
        October 12, 2016 at 11:42

        The Western R2P ideological dogma has been instant humanitarianism in a sachet from its inception: take a bit of pig blood from the bodies of the crisis actors and combine with plenty of noble words about duty to humanity and civilisation (against barbarians) and voila – humanitarian bombing followed by war crimes tribunal. Instant humanitarianism for in between ad breaks, without a trace of ethical ambiguity (which could cause dispepsia during TV dinner). Shock and Awe is good, but killing civilians to save some civilians is an unfortunate collateral, after all you have to break some eggs to save some eggs.

        R2P is self-interest dressed as humanitarianism: Greater Israel, restoration of a part of the Turkish empire, primacy of the Saudi monarchy in the ME, proof that US is still the top dog, and of course, plenty of profit for the MIC.

        Where is the similarity/parallel with Tolstoy?

  16. Skip Scott
    October 12, 2016 at 09:48

    “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”-
    Aldous Huxley

    • John Barth jr.
      October 12, 2016 at 19:11

      It is political decay that has obscured the lessons of history and literature. Indeed history is full of warnings of little significance to the tyrants over democracy against whom Aristotle warned millennia ago, who must create foreign enemies to pose as protectors and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty. History as the litany of human error does not teach sympathy, the foundation of civilized conduct. Sympathy is the domain of the weak, and those whom moral education has shown that they need “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” (Donne).

      Religion alone does little moral education, because the recommendation of good principles is only a fraction of the social & moral education process. Religions have failed to teach cooperation among distinct systems, or to educate the fortunate and powerful to sympathize with the unfortunate and powerless. That is taught by experience, but most cannot have the necessary educational experiences, except in literature or other media, because those are rare, dangerous, or require wise interpretation.

      Great literature not only provides protagonists with whom many identify in their challenge by antagonists, it also documents the beliefs, social processes, and moral failures of its time and milieu, shows how the moral failures hurt those we care about, and shows how those might be avoided. Most literature is not great because most writers do not have that mission, do not have the moral or social or practical knowledge to say anything important, and seek only to sell entertainment. Great literature does not sell because it is educational, necessarily contains some tragedy, and often neglects to entertain. When it is great it is read primarily by bright teens and college students, who do not have much time. Video is faster, but seldom reveals flawed reasoning.

      Witness (strictly for example of course) my 550 page novel The National Memorial, winner of five book awards with eight five-star reviews and no bad reviews, which has sold fewer copies than were sent to reviewers (see All literature is now pirated and distributed on internet, preventing book sales, so will I really spend another four years of very painstaking labor documenting the moral failures of our society and presenting them in a dramatic and interesting form for the good of humanity?

      Real literature and other social educational media have failed to gain any market share in our society, because the mass media are controlled by money. Literature has become content-free entertainment. The mass media are propaganda businesses. In fact our society has been taken over by business bully-boys who control mass media and elections with money. They actively attack sympathy and humanitarianism, have subverted democracy, and left us only the forms of civilization. They are savages who have led humanity back to the primitivism of ancient times, so that we must now retrace its prior progress in regulating direct force, in the new domain of economic power.

      Literature and other social education cannot function in their traditional forms in that environment. Even video with social education and social criticism is kept from public view by oligarchy.

      • backwardsevolution
        October 12, 2016 at 23:39

        John – well said!

      • Michael Morrissey
        October 13, 2016 at 11:43

        “All literature is now pirated and distributed on internet, preventing book sales…” Would that it were so! I think you are blaming the wrong people. Publishers are the (only) ones standing in the way of the great gift to mankind that is the internet, with its very real and immediate possibility of bringing all literature, great and small, to everyone for free. This is as it can and should be. The only thing that needs to continue to be protected is copyright for the sake of authors who deserve recognition, though not necessarily financial compensation. Ideas, writing and “literature,” however you want to define it, should be free. We have gone a long way towards this end already, and we will go further. Get money and business out of writing and “literature” completely, and then what will we have? Think about it.

        • John Barth jr.
          October 13, 2016 at 13:08

          Yes, copyrighted material is all that should be protected (and all that is protected). But the industry is extremely marginal financially, not a place of profiteers as many imagine.

          Publishers may in a few cases make windfall profits, but lose money on most books. Printing costs are about 25-50% of retail, bookstores pay only 50% of retail to publishers, and the rest goes to shipping, returns, markdowns, stocking fees, etc. Writers get less than $2 per copy even for hardbacks sold with no returns, and often get nothing. So it takes a bestseller to pay a writer what he/she can earn doing anything else, even for a quickly-written puff piece. Really well-written literature takes years per volume, and is professional work in skill level, and usually pays very little.

          So these internet pirates are scoundrels starving the starving, not robin hoods relieving humanity from profiteers. There is no reason that intellectual property should be worth nothing just because it can be easily stolen.

        • John Barth jr.
          October 13, 2016 at 15:24

          Nonetheless I concede to you that, if everyone used digital copies only and copyrights were rigorously protected, readers would only pay the author royalty and a small overhead charge for downloading etc. Then a bestseller would still pay the writer a reasonable income, while costing the reader only a dollar or two per copy. But we would still have the problem of market forces producing tripe instead of literature because it sells better, and would still have to fight piracy.

          As it is, the writer of literature is in the position of the preacher, whom Ambrose Bierce defined as “a man hired by sinners, to prove to them by his example, that virtue doesn’t pay.” My grandfather left the ministry during the Depression, in part because he could not support his family on the benevolence of his parishioner, and in part because they didn’t pay much attention: some of them apparently lynched a black man on suspicion of rape.

          • Michael Morrissey
            October 14, 2016 at 04:13

            I was talking of course about digital works. You can self-publish at Kindle Direct Publishing, set your own price and get 70% without any publisher interfering. I don’t begrudge Amazon their 30% for providing the platform.

            This revolution (I think the word is apt) is already underway, and eventually ways will turn up to guide people through the digital chaos to find what they need and want. Up to now it has been the publishers who have decided what the public reads. That is still so; hence the battle between what we now call the “mass media” and “alternative media.” Once money is out of the game, as it already is to a large extent, the ideal of “free education/culture/entertainment” will have been achieved. What remains, as I said, is how to find one’s way through the jungle, but I am confident those paths will develop.

  17. ltr
    October 12, 2016 at 09:41

    Absolutely brilliant essay, brilliant analogy, brilliant writing.

    • Bob Van Noy
      October 12, 2016 at 10:46

      Totally agree ltr, Brilliant!

      • MRW
        October 12, 2016 at 21:42

        Me too.

    • Mahatma
      October 12, 2016 at 20:48


  18. Sally Snyder
    October 12, 2016 at 08:54

    Here is an article that looks at how quickly the decision was made to start the endless War on Terror:

    America’s destiny in the Middle East was set during the 1990s with the Project for a New American Century.

    • Hamzah
      October 15, 2016 at 07:57

      Exactly…others are just consequential consequences.

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