In the Bleak Mid Winter/War and Peace

The sun that brief November day

Rose cheerless over hills of grey

And, darkly circled, gave at noon

A light more pale than waning moon.

-John Greenleaf Whittier

I’ve misquoted this poem, the month should be December. But these words fit November, which was brutal – consisting of days and days of watery, dim grey light.  Night seemed to start at 4:30 pm.

I never watch DVDs but the gloomy evenings drove me to get the BBC 20 episode version of ‘War and Peace” from the library.  I first saw it decades ago. 

Anthony Hopkins brilliantly stars as Pierre, but all the actors are strong.  Tolstoy’s characters feel themselves pulled along by an intractable fate, which is stronger than they are and which changes their lives before they are even aware of it.  

The most fascinating character is General Mikhail Kutuzov, the commander of the Russian Army.  Old, overweight, blind in one eye, limping and wearing a terrible toupee, Kutuzov was fatalistic about military planning

“The battle (of Borodino) will make no difference.  Tomorrow we will be in the same position with 20,000 less men.  So will the French.”

The fog of war was intense back then.  Armies often had little idea where the enemy was. 

There is a great scene in ‘War and Peace”, where a tall aristocratic officer, bandaged and exhausted, arrives in the Russian army camp in Germany.  He sends his name into Kutuzov’s field office.  A few moments pass.  The elderly Kutuzov comes stumping out in astonishment and gapes at him.   It is General Mack, commander of the Austrian army.  This is the first the Russians have heard that Napoleon has attacked and captured the Austrian army at Ulm.  The Russian army has marched all the way from Russia to join the Austrians – now they must pack up and march back, in flight from the larger French army.

I have always wondered why military history is so fascinating when war is so awful and regrettable.  Watching this series, I’ve realized that military history is about the fantasy that a chaotic, unconscious and brutal manifestation is actually a controlled act. Only history can make sense of some of the forces at work.


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