What Tolstoy Could Have Taught Putin

Based on Russia’s advantages in soldiers, tanks, and aircraft, Putin’s forces should have taken Kyiv, decapitated the Ukrainian government, and installed a pro-Russian regime in just a few days. But numbers aren’t everything. If they had paid closer attention to Russia’s greatest novel, War and Peace, Putin’s strategists might have been less surprised.

The war in Ukraine has evidently not unfolded the way President Putin and his advisors expected. Objective factors seemed to heavily favor the Russians: count the soldiers, tanks, and aircraft, and Russia should have taken Kyiv, decapitated the Ukrainian government, and installed a pro-Russian regime in just a few days. But the numbers haven’t told the whole story.

If they had paid closer attention to Russia’s greatest novel, War and Peace, Putin’s strategists might have been less surprised. In this masterpiece of thinking, as well as of art, Tolstoy illustrates the idea that war cannot be reduced to quantifiable formulations, models, and predictions.

The belief that there could be a science of war seemed compelling in the nineteenth century. Ever since Isaac Newton succeeded in explaining planets’ amazingly complex movements by four simple laws, countless thinkers have presumed that a science of the social world must be possible. Time and again, these “moral Newtonians,” as historian Élie Halévy called them, have claimed to have actually established such a science. Condorcet, Bentham, Buckle, Comte, Freud, Malinowski, Skinner, Jared Diamond, Gary Becker, and many other putative founders of a hard social science all attracted numerous followers.

Of course, the most influential of these pseudo-scientists was Marx. The Soviet Union embraced a synthesis of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, resulting in a social theory they called “dialectical materialism” (DM) as the science of sciences. When hard sciences contradicted the tenets of DM, they were rejected as unscientific because DM was regarded as absolutely infallible. For example, genetics was long banned. Even in physics and chemistry, relativity theory and the chemical theory of resonance were both rejected for a time because they contradicted the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge.

President Putin’s men may no longer profess DM, but its essential mindset—the inviolable confidence that one cannot be mistaken—has evidently remained with them. Overconfident that their war calculations could not fail them, they discounted the possibility of severe reverses.


The Fallacy of “Social Science”

Tolstoy set out to show that there neither was nor ever could be a social science, if by “science” one means a discipline resembling physics. Carl von Clausewitz (the great theorist of war who appears as a bit character in Tolstoy’s novel) had already shown the absurdity of trying to construct a scientific theory of war by mistakenly mathematizing anything possible and ignoring the rest. In our time, the same impulse led American economist Gary Becker to propose applying the “economic model” to other social disciplines (including sociology and criminology) and thereby replace them all, at one fell swoop, with true science. In all such models, things that can’t be mathematized, like culture, individual psychology, and human freedom, are completely overlooked.

Theorists can enumerate troops and equipment, but the rules they derive from counting, Clausewitz affirmed, “are absolutely useless. They aim at fixed values; but in war everything is uncertain. . . . They direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical qualities, whereas all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects. . . . Theory becomes infinitely more difficult when it touches the realm of moral values.”

Psychological forces, cultural habits, moral values: these are what the realist novel, especially as practiced by Tolstoy, describes best. As a genre, realist novels presume that people are too individual and too complex to be adequately described by any theory. Tolstoy’s masterpiece perceptively asks: what is the psychology that leads people to imagine that psychology doesn’t matter?


Tolstoy and War “Science”

Prince Andrei, the hero of War and Peace, hopes to achieve glory in the war against Napoleon. He relies not only on his unshakable courage but also on his great intelligence. Andrei understands the new military science, which, as he hears repeatedly, allows its adepts to “foresee all contingencies,” as a true science should.

As commander-in-chief Kutuzov’s aide-de-camp, Andrei attends the council of war before the battle of Austerlitz, where the French faced the combined armies of Austria and Russia. Andrei never gets to present his own battle plan, but he overhears the Austrian and Russian generals argue about theirs. Of course, if the plans were truly scientific, and as certain as mathematics, there would be no argument, just as mathematicians do not debate the Pythagorean theorem. But of course, war is not reducible to theorem, so debate inevitably ensues.

As General Weyrother, with supreme confidence, presents the plan of warfare certain to produce victory over Napoleon’s inferior forces, one general “not only looked as though he were not listening, but even as though he did not wish it to be thought that he was listening”; another mutters with annoyance, “a geography lesson”; a third, General Langeron, at last objects:

“In other words, you think he [Napoleon] is powerless?” . . .

“He has forty thousand men at most,” replied Weyrother, with the smile of a physician to whom a nurse is trying to explain her own method of treatment.

“In that case he is courting his doom by awaiting our attack,” retorted Langeron, with a subtle, ironic smile. . . .

Throughout Weyrother’s presentation and the subsequent discussion, Kutuzov, who displays utter contempt for the supposed science of war and who tolerates it solely because the Emperor believes in it, falls asleep. At last he wakes and famously observes:

Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow—or rather for today, since it is past midnight—cannot be altered now. . . . You have all heard it, and we shall all do our duty. And before a battle, there is nothing more important . . . than a good night’s sleep.

If the outcome of a battle could be scientifically planned, it would pay to stay up late to get the plan right. But if battle involves countless unforeseeable threats and opportunities to which one must react in the moment, then alertness matters more than plans. That is why a good night’s sleep is so crucial. Weyrother and Kutuzov represent two opposing views of war and human affairs generally. One view leads to scientifically informed central planning; the other values experience, judgment, and attentiveness to the moment.

Austerlitz turned out to be Napoleon’s greatest victory, but the defeated Austrian and Russian generals do not for a moment doubt their science. But isn’t science a matter of empirical evidence? What sort of science cannot be disconfirmed regardless of how wrong its predictions prove?

Andrei grasps the emptiness of such thinking when he considers General Pfühl, who has unshakable faith in his science. To be sure, Pfühl had been responsible for “the plan of campaign that ended in [defeat at] Jena and Auerstadt, but in the outcome of that war he failed to see the slightest evidence of the fallibility of his theory.” Quite the contrary: defeat actually vindicates his theory because, he reasons, it must have resulted from the failure to carry out his orders perfectly. Since perfect execution is never possible, defeat validates theory as surely as victory. Alas, such shabby reasoning remains common today.

Brave, Spirited Men

Years of experience teach Andrei the foolishness of faith in a science of war. Andrei reflects: “No one has ever been able to foresee what the position of our army or the enemy’s army will be at the end of any day, and no one can gauge the strength of this or that detachment.” Strength is not just a matter of numbers. “Sometimes—when there is not a coward in front to cry: ‘We are cut off!’ and start running, but a brave, spirited man who shouts: ‘Hurrah!’—a detachment of five thousand is worth thirty thousand, . . . while at other times fifty thousand will flee from eight thousand, as at Austerlitz.” At present, the high morale of the Ukrainian defenders and the low morale of the Russian attackers has evidently rendered advance calculations of a swift victory absurd.

Andrei asks: “What science can there be in a matter in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be determined and everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance becomes manifest at a particular moment, and no one can tell when that moment will come?” Andrei’s question applies to every practical matter: Tolstoy is suggesting that this kind of skepticism is warranted for any social science that may ever be formulated. In a hard science like physics, each moment is the necessary and automatic derivative of previous moments. But in practical affairs, the particular moment—being a culmination of physical factors, human freedom, and innumerable contingencies—makes a real difference. It can be truly momentous and lead in more than one direction, depending on chance, morale, or an agent’s alertness.

To be effective, one must seize opportunities no advance plan could anticipate. Shortly after Andrei realizes there can be no science of war, Tolstoy shows us what matters more than advance plans. The line officer Nikolai Rostov, an ordinary person with nothing like Andrei’s intelligence, observes a group of French soldiers climbing a hill. “He felt instinctively that if his hussars were to charge the French dragoons now, the latter would not be able to withstand them, but that it would have to be done at once, instantly, or it would be too late.” The changing disposition of the French soldiers favors, for a brief moment, a successful charge. Rostov takes advantage of the moment and scatters the enemy. This is what Kutuzov meant by alertness.

It is because opportunities and dangers constantly arise, and only someone on the spot can recognize them and act appropriately, that line officers often matter more than central planners. The Soviet economy, where everything was decided by a central plan and managers, couldn’t react to new conditions and foundered. If life could be made into a science that submitted to infallible central plans, Napoleon would have lost and socialism would have worked.


The Limits of Intelligence

Despite Russia’s transition to something resembling a market economy, Putin’s men do not seem to have learned this lesson. I read in a recent article that “one of the reasons for the stalled advance is that Russia has no non-commissioned officer corps. Often viewed as the backbone of any armed forces, these officers take the initiative and get things done. Russia doesn’t have that, which leads to micromanagement and a bogged-down military operation.” They rely on Weyrothers, not Rostovs.

Tolstoy was the first to describe battle as sheer chaos. People often compare commanders to chess players contemplating the board, but Tolstoy knew that this comparison presumes an impossible omniscience. The characters in War and Peace, whether generals or enlisted men, blunder through a haze of fog and smoke, desperate shouting, and unbearable groaning, as terrified people run one way or the other, with no one seeing much further than a few feet ahead. Overconfident generals issue orders based on reports that are mere guesses. Even if the reports happen to be accurate, the orders often no longer apply to the changing situation by the time line officers receive them.

Tolstoy instructs: It is always a mistake to place too much confidence in military (or any other) intelligence. Think how sure Western intelligence agencies were that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Did Putin, the former KGB man, rely too much on intelligence reports predicting that Ukraine would rapidly collapse and that Western governments would not respond in a meaningful way?

In 2010 West Point invited me to lecture on War and Peace. The officers I met already understood it well. They acknowledged that intelligence is inherently faulty, that contingencies cannot be foreseen, that volatile morale matters, and that, no matter how preponderant one’s forces, battles can be lost. That is why, they explained to me, civilian politicians opt for war when soldiers prove reluctant.

Putin threw caution to the wind and invaded. Though he claims to admire Russian literature, he evidently forgot to consider its greatest work.

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