Flaring Up: “War and Peace” and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Sparing no page, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace captures the cycle of popular passion as it erupts forth in war and wanes in peace creating an appropriate lens through which to survey the rekindling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tolstoy chronicles how war transforms Russia and the Russians by following various aristocratic families—the Rostovs, the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys and their many acquaintances—as they live, love and cope while the (European) world order is turned upside down. Just like the Napoleonic Wars, both the former Arab-Israeli and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict are, at their core, conflicts over control of territory, and the security of it. Using War and Peace as a prism, we can analyze why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists, and the difficulty in creating a permanent and satisfying solution. When popular passions supplant the restraint of Clausewitzian reason only mutual self-recognition—the foundation of trust—can spark a genuine peace-building dialogue.

In order to narrow down the scope of Tolstoy’s enormous work—“it is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle”—we can focus on the later half of War and Peace wherein Tolstoy depicts the Battle of Borodino.Here, we find Pierre Bezukhov, a socially gauche Francophile, but kind-hearted idealist, wandering through the fields of the Battle of Borodino and its aftermath. Tolstoy uses Pierre, who is not a participant to the action, but rather a spectator, to provide our objective view of war. Pierre’s contrast is his close friend and Russian regimental commander Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Prince Andrei acts as Tolstoy’s vehicle for intimate reflections on the nature and experience of man in war. Tolstoy also follows the French and Russian commanders-in-chief, Napoleon and Kutuzov, respectively.

Tolstoy is keen to demonstrate how little control the commanders have of not only their forces, but also the resulting action. The outcome of the Battle of Borodino is determined by everything but Napoleon and Kutuzov themselves: Tolstoy’s famous denial of the “great man” theory of history. War and Peace can be considered a treatise on just how little important events depend on the “key” historical actors. The geniuses—the Napoleons and Kutuzovs—are just history’s shorthand, nicknames for the era. Tolstoy writes, “In the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon fulfilled his function as the representative of power” to the point that he “worthily fulfilled his role of seeming to command.” Instead, what mattered is everything not remembered: the sum of the insignificances that surge up and, when considered together, create the historical moment.

In the Battle of Borodino, these “insignificances” manifested as the spirit of the people. Specifically, Tolstoy pinpoints: “In military action, the force of an army is also a product of mass times something, some unknown x.” And this x, which turns out to be “the spirit of the army,” can overcome, when sufficiently strong, any military disadvantage. Applied to the Middle East, we can consider this spirit as a force multiplier, which for the Israelis during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and for the Palestinians during the Intifadas, amplified the power of their limited means, enabling them to not just fight, but also reach (some) desired political ends. Clausewitz recognized that this strength of the “moral force” could determine the outcome of the war—as much as the physical application of force, if not more so.

Before Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino, Prince Andrei contemplates that “the merit of success in military affairs does not depend on them [the geniuses], but on the man in the ranks who shouts ‘We’re lost!’ or shouts ‘Hurrah!’” This spirit of the people, as a force multiplier, surges up, changing the scope and the direction of the conflict. Similarly, in the Middle East conflicts, seemingly small events—like the deaths of a few Israelis or Palestinians—end up igniting one side’s entire spirit towards action. Remember, the Second Intifada exploded after Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. The backlash that flares up might be a response to one such specific event, but also encompasses all perceived injustices prior. When these sparks, like Moscow’s burning, are contextualized they become another manifestation of Tolstoy’s cries: “We’re lost!” or “Hurrah!”

For Tolstoy, this “spirit” supersedes reason and chance. Despite the magnitude of the Russian losses at the Battle of Borodino, from Kutuzov to the lowly soldier, the Russians knew that they had won; it was just a matter of time for the (physical) event to reflect the (spiritual) outcome. Even more so, the spirit can be augmented based on the reason for the fight. This is what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so persistent and pernicious. Each side believes that the other is threating its security and its home, and thus portrays itself in a manner akin to the Russians during Napoleon’s invasion. To each, what is at stake is life itself. As Tolstoy explains, “Men who have the greatest desire to fight will always put themselves in the most advantageous condition for fighting.” But, if both have the “greatest desire,” then how can one supersede the advantage of the other. In existential conflicts, passions persist despite military and political outcomes.

In the end, Tolstoy reminds us that those who direct actions have the least effect on the outcome, and those with the least capacity to direct the actions of others are the ones who move history. Therefore, the diplomacy in April was bound to fail as long as the people were unwilling to accept the negotiations. Yet, the real lesson from Tolstoy is not one based upon his nihilism and disregard for the possibility that leaders can direct the course of events—which, in this case, would be the possibility that diplomacy could create a lasting and satisfying peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, his most relevant lesson is that of the inevitable futility of a negotiated settlement to which the passions of the people are opposed.

As we look on at the blazing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, we can only hope that despite Tolstoy’s warnings to the contrary, we can do something. Namely, we can play the role of Pierre as he witnessed the Battle of Borodino: we can find the common humanity of the participants. Pierre, observing the wounded and dead lying around him, remarks, criticizing neither the Russians, nor the French, but man: “No, now they’ll stop it, now they’ll be horrified at what they’ve done!” Like Pierre, we are a global audience and spectators to the field of battle, but unlike Pierre, we have the capacity for action. Whereas, Pierre can only hope that the French and Russians will recognize each other and stop, we can facilitate reconciliation. But we must be cautious, as with any wind of change, we must be wary of stoking, rather than extinguishing, the embers of the spirit.


2ndLt. Garard is a Marine Corps officer waiting to head to TBS. She has spent her time reading and earning an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces