One of the most daunting challenges for any serious reader is “War & Peace.” You know you’re supposed to read it. It mocks you from the shelves of your favorite book store. It makes itself known through conversations with other brave souls. It lingers on tables of book sales. My version was a ghastly 1,400 page behemoth. For years, it occupied a shelf in my home demanding to be known, to be read, and to be understood. Before I knew it, the courage took over and I began a 9 month journey of picking it up and putting it down. After it was all over, much like an unborn child finally making his or her escape, I turned the last page, read the final paragraph, and was able to pronounce to the world, “I too have read “War & Peace.” This post is about my three major takeaways from the book. If you’re a member of the club, comment below. I am interested to finally join the conversation.
Before we begin, this is not a book report. This is a post on the themes that stuck with me. This a post about how a book published in 1869 can still find application in today’s world. With that out of the way, let’s address the first major theme.
Poor men fight wars. Throughout human history and the history of my country this fact has been discussed in depth and at great length. Those who protested the Vietnam War did so, in part, because they felt as if they were being sent half way around the world to fight in a country many couldn’t find on a map to line the pockets of those in power. Soldiers and sailors of my age group were fearful of a war in Iraq, not because of evil men in the desert, but for oil and a foot to stand on within the region. As Napoleon moved across Europe, the Russians seemed to show little regard to the destruction he was causing until it began to affect their economic interests. When their way of life became threatened, they seemed to rile up the poor and middle class to fight on their behalf.
As I am once again confronted with this fact of war, I can’t help, but wonder why the middle class and working-poor allow themselves to be used in such a fashion. Why weren’t more draft cards burned during Vietnam? Why weren’t their more protests concerning Iraq? Why did the Russians isolate themselves? Why are poor people, who are getting a raw deal from their country, still so willing to die for it? Perhaps, these are questions that cannot be answered here, but as one reads through this novel it can’t be helped when they are drawn to the forefront of your mind.
A second theme that emerged for me was this; Megalomaniacs reshape the world. Napoleon was larger than life in both his view of his place in history and his delusions of granger. He is the man who gave us the “Napoleon Complex.” His appetite for power coupled with his insatiable desire for recognition helped reshape the world as we know it. Napoleon was not the first to hold the title of megalomaniac. Alexander the Great, King George III, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and many more preceded him and followed in his footsteps. For one to think he or she should be the leader of a group of people, requires a significant amount of confidence. For one to think he or she should make the world over in their image, is megalomania. Yet, it is often these people who history remembers. We spin tales of their violence, their worship of a singular idea, and ultimately their love of self and country. We are to learn lessons here as well, though. Violence is rarely an effective way to control a crowd. Sure, its immediate impact is felt, but revolution after revolution has shown people will not lay under the boot for long. Worship of a single idea is also dangerous. Society functions best when pluralism is allowed to flourish. When multiple ideas are allowed to be discussed, debated, and majority rule decides (usually through democratic votes) the best path, society works best. Finally, when ultra-nationalism is allowed to prosper and this movement is led by a single person, history shows death on a massive scale. Ultra-nationalism is dangerous, because it forces citizens to see everyone as the other and an enemy to your success. Again, history shows us enemies are never dealt with kindly.
My final takeaway from “War & Peace” was this idea of maps as battle-lines. The Russian people and their leaders displayed little regard for the advancing French army until it was too late. In their minds, the map and their sheer size protected them. Ultimately, it would take brute force and a little luck to push Napoleon back, but not without death on a massive scale. The Russians underestimated the French, because of maps, but with ultimate victory the map of Europe was redrawn. This is another theme repeated throughout history. In the U.S., the Revolutionary War and Mexican-American War redrew the map. Once upon a time, “The Sun Never Settled on the British Empire,” but battles for independence redrew the map. The empires of Rome and Greece coupled with their never ending hunger for more redrew the map again and again. Maps are battle-lines and they set the course for human history. “War & Peace” is but one example of such a feat.
Be good to each other,