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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Tolstoy & Pirabhakaran Parallels

21 January 2004

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Recently, I located an interesting essay by environmental scientist David Ehrenfeld (Rutger’s University) which appeared in the Conservation Biology journal in 2000. Ehrenfeld had served as the first editor of this journal from 1986 to 1993. In this essay, he had described succinctly Napoleon’s disastrous military adventure in Russia and the role of his nemesis Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov (1745-1813), as viewed by Leo Tolstoy - the famed Russian author. Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born fifteen years after the death of Kutuzov.

Many of us have learnt about the military heroics of Napoleon during our school days, but were rather clueless about his Russian adversary, who played his cards efficiently, in check-mating the mighty French army in 1812. Largely because of the British imperialistic hegemony in the 19th century, the military exploits of Napoleon’s British adversaries, namely Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805, the hero of the Battle of Cape Trafalgar, 1805) and Duke of Wellington (1769-1852, the hero of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815) have been widely disseminated, but Marshal Kutuzov had remained a shadowy warrior, less admired other than by Tolstoy.

Nearly nine decades ago, a junior contemporary of Tolstoy and the inimitable Tamil poet Subramaniya Bharathi (1882-1921), in one of his well-known verses, complained about the petty mind-set of Tamils, as follows:

‘Nenjil uramu minri - Nermai thiranu minri
Vanjanai solvaaradi – Kiliye
Vaai chollil Veeraradi.’

[Without strength in their soul – Without a straight spine
They pout poisonous words – Baby
They are the talk warriors.]

The parade of ‘talk warriors’ among Tamils in Colombo and Chennai, as Bharathi complained, continue to spew bile on Pirabhakaran and LTTE. This parade of political sin-eaters like Lakshman Kadirgamar and Douglas Devananda make effective use of wordsmiths like D.B.S.Jeyaraj. For example, in his routine Sunday Leader (January 18, 2004) commentary, pundit Jeyaraj – while paying compliments to Devananda’s “constructive contributions to the Hindu religion” (whatever that means has not been elaborated by the wordsmith!) in his one year ministerial tenure, snidely slipped in the sentence “The TNA parliamentarians, with the exception of Anandasangaree, have dedicated their bodies, minds and souls to the LTTE.” If it is really so, good for them.

Compared to the deeds of these talk warriors in the past decade, when I read Ehrenfeld’s essay, I saw more than a few parallels between the strategy adopted by Marshal Kutuzov (in 1812) and Pirabhakaran (1987-2002). Quite many would also have been wondering for the past many months what Pirabhakaran and LTTE is up to, since the February 2002 ceasefire? Thus, I provide the relevant segment of Ehrenfeld’s interesting essay for digestion.

David Ehrenfeld’s Essay entitled ‘War and Peace and Conservation Biology’

[courtesy: Conservation Biology, February 2000; vol.14, pp.105-112]

“…We are like the child who pretends to be controlling the car from the back seat by means of a toy steering wheel. What does one do in circumstances such as these? Is there a strategy to follow?

The Historical Perspective

Fortunately, this question is as old as history. We can benefit from the wisdom and experience of others who were grappling with this problem long before any of us were born. A celebrated example is provided by the prolonged and often inspired debate over the course of events that began to unfold in the year 1810, although the real beginnings of such great events do not have an identifiable date. In that year the Emperor Napoleon, then at the peak of his power, secured his European flank by marrying Marie-Louise, daughter of his former enemy, Emperor Francis I of Austria, and began to move his forces eastward into Prussia and Poland, closer and closer to the Russian border. By the summer of 1812, he had assembled a huge army at Kovno, on the Niemen River, and on the night of 24-25 June crossed the river with his troops to begin the invasion of Russia.

To understand the argument about Napoleon’s Russian campaign that has continued until the present day, we need to review its basic outlines. First, the major actors. In addition to Napoleon, who had supreme authority over the armies of France and its reluctant allies, including Prussia and Austria, there was Tsar Alexander I of Russia; Sir Robert Wilson, the representative of Russia’s principal ally, England, who was attached as commissioner to the Russian army; and, most important, the elderly Russian commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Only a few facts from this enormously well-documented campaign need concern us. Napoleon’s farthest advance was to Moscow, which he reached on 14 September. Moscow was huge for its time, magnificent, but empty, having been deserted by most of its inhabitants, who systematically set fires as they left. By the night of 15-16 September, much of the city was burning. Napoleon, who had been sleeping in the Kremlin, narrowly escaped with his life. After a frustrating and pointless month in what remained of Moscow, Napoleon marched his army southwestward out of the city and began his famous retreat, which ended on 14 December, when Marshal Ney, commanding the French rear guard, sent his few surviving soldiers, some of whom had stayed alive by eating their comrades, back across the Niemen into Kovno in temperatures that hovered between 35o and 40o below zero, Fahrenheit. Napoleon, who had preceded Ney, remarked as he passed through Warsaw on his way to Paris: ‘I was carried away by events. Perhaps I made a mistake by going to Moscow, perhaps I should not have stayed there long; but there is only a step from the sublime to the ridiculous, and it is up to posterity to judge.’ Of the 420,000 men of the French Grand Army who had crossed the Niemen in June 1812, plus the 150,000 reinforcements who came later – 570,000 in all – not quite 30,000 remained alive and capable of holding a gun at the end of the campaign.

And here is the strangest fact of all: during the entire campaign only one major battle was fought, at Borodino, on the road to Moscow and not far from the city. The Battle of Borodino, one of the bloodiest in history, resulted in the loss of more than 50,000 French soldiers (including 47 generals) and 58,000 Russians. The dead and wounded were piled so thick on the ground afterward that a sullen and silent Napoleon, touring the battlefield with bloodshot eyes, found that his horse had no place to put its feet. Two things stand out about this battle. First, it seemed to be a draw, yet Kutuzov immediately organized a skillful and rapid retreat through Moscow to Tarutino, abandoning Moscow to Napoleon, despite the violent protests of its scheming mayor, Rostopchin. Second, Kutuzov had not wanted to fight at Borodino but was forced to by overwhelming pressure from most of his general staff and from the tsar and General Robert Wilson, the latter of whom considered Kutuzov lazy, incompetent, and possibly afraid of Napoleon.

Who was Kutuzov? On the one hand, he was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, a hero to the Russian people, and revered by the common soldiers of the army. He was a figure so beloved, so legendary, that even Tsar Alexander and Robert Wilson, who hated and despised Kutuzov and worked ceaselessly with disaffected generals on his staff to undermine the field marshal, were unable to get rid of him. On the otherhand, he was a fat, self-indulgent, womanizing old man with one eye who had the disconcerting habit of falling sleep at staff meetings before major battles, while the final disposition of guns and soliders was being discussed by his subordinates. In one view of history commonly held after 1812, Kutuzov did nothing to earn the Russian victory over Napoleon: it was the Russian winter that deserved all the credit. In fact, in this view Kutuzov was to be blamed for the inactivity that allowed Napoleon to escape, for not pressing his advantage effectively while the disintegrating French army, in full retreat, was crossing the treacherously thin ice over the River Berezina. If Napoleon had been captured at that time, Wilson and others later argued, Europe would have been spared the ordeal of three more years of bloody war that culminated in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

But there was another view of Kutuzov, a view that is especially relevant to the great issues of our time, from ethnic cleansings to the global onslaught on biodiversity. This reading of history was advanced by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace (1941), first published in 1868-1869. Kutuzov, according to Tolstoy, understood one grand idea that neither his generals nor the tsar was able to grasp; great leaders do not really control great events; it is an illusion to say that a Napoleon determines the outcome of battles and wars through his reason, his mastery of military science, the application of his genius. Battles such as Borodino, like most of the truly momentous things that move history, are enormously more complex, have vastly more variables and unpredictable events than any human being could possibly control. No general fully understands a great battle while it is happening. Kutuzov knew this, said Tolstoy. He knew that Napoleon could be beaten only by a force that no field marshal could manage, although he (Kutuzov) could take advantage of it – the force generated by the infinitely subtle interaction between Russian geography, Russian climate and the spirit of the Russian people. Tolstoy was convinced that Kutuzov’s reluctance to fight resulted not from fear and not from passivity. It was in fact an active strategy: avoid bloodshed and the risks of unpredictable battles, while Russia itself expels the invader. Use the Russian Army skillfully first to contain the invading force and then to direct its retreat, but fight only as a last resort. Kutuzov is known to have said on a number of occasions that he was building Napoleon a ‘golden bridge’ by which he could leave Russia.

In War and Peace, Kutuzov thinks, ‘They must understand that we can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions…’ [A]ll Kutuzov’s activity, continued Tolstoy, ‘was directed towards restraining his troops, by authority, by guile and by entreaty, from useless attacks, manoeuvers, or encounters with the perishing enemy’. In a commentary about War and Peace, also written in 1868, Tolstoy (1941) remarked: ‘Studying so tragic an epoch, so rich in the importance of its events, so near to our own time, and regarding which so many varied traditions survive, I arrived at the evident fact that the causes of historical events when they take place cannot be grasped by our intelligence.’ This is a difficult idea for late twentieth century people to understand. We live in a world of simplified representations of the great events going on around us, from stock market fluctuations to ethnic conflicts to extinctions. Our world is one of models, of analyses based on models, and of expert predictions based on the analyses. Our entire technological civilization is predicated on the assumption that we, the ultimate managers, can isolate all the important variables from the chaotic events now happening, make sense of them, and act accordingly. That this assumption is usually not true occurs to few people.

Tolstoy was an accomplished historian whose accounts of historical figures such as Kutuzov, Alexander, and his leading generals were based on his large collection of documents and sources from the Napoleonic period. His descriptions of events are supported by the historian Eugene Tarle, writing in 1942, with full access to previously closed archives in the USSR. Tarle wrote that, ‘Kutuzov did not believe that Napoleon could retain his world empire after his defeat in Russia, and he refused to shed Russian blood to obtain a result that was inevitable in any case.’ According to Tarle, Kutuzov more than anyone knew the weakness and suffering of his own army, and he kept it carefully out of Napoleon’s way during the retreat by marching on a parallel course some miles to the south, despire enormous pressure to fight from the tsar, Wilson, and his own general staff. General Loewenstern, one of Kutuzov’s staff officers, wrote in his journal after a successful raid against the French rear guard: ‘Nothing could compel Kutuzov to act; he even grew angry with those who pointed out to him the extent of the enemy’s demoralization, and he chased me from his study for telling him, upon my return from the battlefield, that half of the French army was rotten.’ Tarle quotes the brilliant and daring General Denis Davydov, a Kutuzov supporter, who said that while Napoleon was desperately manoevering to get his army across the Berezina, Kutuzov deliberately confused his own field commander, Admiral Chichagov, by sending him incorrectly dated reports on Russian and French troop movements, thus preventing the bewildered admiral from getting anywhere near Napoleon’s army….”

End-Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

‘Nobody’s perfect’, as Joe Clark pouted the punch line at the end of Billy Wilder’s classic movie Some Like it Hot (1959). One should note that Tolstoy is not one hundred percent perfect in his view that ‘great leaders do not really control great events.’ By his own logic, how could Tolstoy anticipate and comprehend the developments in military science (for instance, the use of air force) and sphagetti-like intertwined global society which materialized after his death? David Ehrenfeld, in his essay, had subsequently included three paragraphs citing a revision of Tolstoy’s view by Sir Isiah Berlin (Russia-born, Oxford philosopher) in his classic The Hedgehog and the Fox(1953). Tolstoy’s view was based on the period he wrote War and Peace; i.e. the late 1860s.

Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s description of the Napoleonic wars and Marshal Kutuzov’s strategy in defeating Napoleon’s army reveal more than a few lessons in analyzing events close to our times and knowledge. Parallels to General Pirabhakaran’s strategy in successfully check-mating the Indian army (1987-90), deflecting the thrust of Sri Lankan army’s Jaffna capture (1995), regaining the Elephant Pass (2000) and the currently holding ceasefire (2002-2004) are markedly comparable.



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