Powerless Politics and a Literary Balm for the Spirit
Iowa City Press Citizen, Dec. 27, 2013
Mary and I borrowed a War and Peace audiobook for a trip East last month, but 2000 miles of driving got us through only 16 of the book’s 48 disks. Author Leo Tolstoy’s epilogue alone is longer than some contemporary novels.
Maquoqueta Library kindly extended their interlibrary loan and we spent the first half of December listening to the remaining 32 disks. With Iowa’s temperatures plunging, we could empathize with the French soldiers that Tolstoy describes, freezing to death on the road back home from Moscow after Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
Tolstoy’s novel debunks the myth of Napoleon’s genius and the whole idea of “great men” as the makers of history. Historians misinterpreted Napoleon’s actions as genius, says Tolstoy’s narrator, when in reality it was only the necessities of the times, the character of the peoples, and accidents of history that enabled Napoleon’s successes, and similarly his subsequent failures and fall.
All leaders share in delusions that they are “the Decider,” as our own G.W. Bush imagined himself. Leaders expect to be obeyed, but those at the other end of chains of command know that it is the attitudes of the multitudes that will ultimately decide whether, when and how actions are taken.
Napoleon appeared at the height of his power, having just occupied Moscow, when his soldiers took to looting the city and the French army’s discipline disappeared. A few months later they began a retreat just as winter was setting in, departing Moscow like a stampeding herd via the same roads they’d come by. In disorderly marches of over 25 miles per day through cold and snow blanketing the deserted territories they’d already decimated, most of Napoleon’s army died from hunger, exposure, and disease.
Listening to Tolstoy’s analysis of Napoleon’s retreat and destruction got me reflecting on citizen self-discipline in contemporary America. After World War II Americans came together in a bi-partisan consensus, making sacrifices for a shared vision of American leadership towards global cooperation and peace.
The complacency arising with the end of the Cold War, the shocks of 9/11, the incompetency and overreach of the post-9/11 wars, and an attitude of entitlement that infects America’s rich even more than its poor, have now broken that consensus.
Military men describe America’s all-volunteer army as “stretched to the breaking point,” and politicians know the same is true of the patience of the American people. The progressive left, the libertarian right, and a deeply scarred professional military all support disentanglement from foreign military adventures. We appear to be retreating from projecting a “superpower” status towards a pre-World War II “fortress America” isolationism.
Having foregone the habit of consensus around perceived threats abroad, Americans are now more fractious with each other at home. Many express disagreements with their own countrymen with an aggressiveness reminiscent of the mid-19th century years that led up to our Civil War, and everyone seems to be buying guns.
In the face of urgent challenges we plead financial insolvency, but in truth we suffer from an insolvency of political and moral will. Our “leaders” –-whether Obama, Boehner, McConnell or others — seem increasingly hapless. To a Tolstoyist, that’s no surprise: there can be no such thing as a “leader” in the absence of a people prepared to be led.
Tolstoy wrote about more than “War” in his great novel, of course. The other half of his title is “Peace.” Even more than the book’s insights into history of unstable and interesting times, Mary and I enjoyed War and Peace for its insights into the human heart, the passions and foibles of youth, the frailties and foolishness of age, the pains of jealousy and greed, and the redeeming powers of love (both emotional and spiritual).
The experience has brought us to the end of the year with that sense of redemption that arises from the shared humanity one finds in truly great works of literature.
Audiobooks of literary classics give a wonderful gift, especially when you listen together with someone who’s good for stimulating conversation, and for the luckier among you, with someone you love. Warm wishes for 2014!