“I Would Not Take Prisoners.” Tolstoy’s Case Against Making War Humane

Samuel Moyn Considers Prince Andrei, Carl von Clausewitz, and the Rules of War

It would take Tolstoy some time to sound the alarm that humanitarianism could entrench war. On the way to doing so, he had one of his most famous characters embrace the inverse proposition: brutality can make it rare.

“One thing I would do if I had the power,” Prince Andrei, the debonair and reflective leading man of War and Peace, declares, “I would not take prisoners.” It comes to the hero as an epiphany: if in battle an enemy soldier were captured, or if he laid down his arms and surrendered, it should not save him from death. No one today thinks it is permissible to kill enemies in war summarily when they are captured or surrender. In fact, to do so is today a gross war crime. How could Andrei take a position that would have made even the worst counselors of inhumanity in recent American wars—George W. Bush’s lawyers, who exempted the country precisely from rules about how to treat captives—blanch?

At the Battle of Austerlitz years earlier, Prince Andrei had been wounded and given medical attention as a prisoner of war by no less an authority than Napoleon himself. Yet the night before the greatest battle of the age, at Borodino, Prince Andrei argued that making war humane not only denatured it but also, even worse, risked the postponement of peace. Tolstoy had sat down in 1863 to begin what became his most famous novel (it appeared in 1869), so Prince Andrei’s speech might well have been a direct response to the Geneva Convention. Tolstoy has Prince Andrei refer quite specifically to the fledgling and original attempt by states to make their clashes with one another more humane: “They talk to us of the rules of war,” Prince Andrei says, “of mercy to the unfortunate.” And adds: “It’s all rubbish.”

Andrei’s position was a direct attack on Dunant’s dream. The prince’s attack was rooted not in any immediate appeal to the ethics of peace Tolstoy would later embrace but instead in the peculiar belief that intensifying war could advance peace indirectly. And to understand this belief, and Tolstoy’s eventual reasons for giving it up, it is critical to detour into another agenda for modernizing war: to make it more intense.

The most celebrated theorist of war of the age and all time, the Prussian nobleman Carl von Clausewitz, clarified that the point of engagement is annihilation, and he asserted “the dominance of the destructive principle,” which he feared earlier theorists of war had downplayed. In his four decades in the Prussian Army, the “god of war” had lived through a trio of Napoleonic battles, including Borodino—where, on the bloodiest day of the century, a European army forced Napoleon’s epic advance to a draw at the gates of Moscow in 1812. It was a site that, fifty years later, Tolstoy himself would visit in a hunting wagon halfway through his work, consulting peasants and planning his own narrative, including Prince Andrei’s mortal wounding there.

The night before the greatest battle of the age, at Borodino, Prince Andrei argued that making war humane not only denatured it but also, even worse, risked the postponement of peace.

In his masterpiece, On War (1832), Clausewitz had warned against the “kind-hearted” fiction that a nation could wage a war “without too much bloodshed.” Not only was it useless, but morally reforming war could exacerbate its evil. “Mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.” Treating the carnage in war as a sin for which to atone or—worse—a blemish on the most beautiful activity in life was something like a moral error. “It would be futile—even wrong—to try to shut one’s eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality,” Clausewitz explained. Concerns about how gory and gruesome the commitments to intensity could become were petty. “The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously,” he allowed, “but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity.” As he observed, “Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.”

Dunant founded the international law of war. But it fell to a disciple of Clausewitz’s to offer a brutal answer to the humane aspirations of the Swiss and their descendants—to offer the first national code for fighting. Born in Prussia, too, in 1798 or 1800, Franz Lieber was a young enlistee who saw action near Waterloo, before fleeing to the United States in the repressive years leading up to the abortive 1848 revolution. Francis in America (and Frank to his friends), Lieber refused to pity victims of war. Lieber’s code went in a different direction, legalizing shock and awe, with humanity a fringe benefit rather than a true goal.

Opinionated to his core, Lieber said pacifists were the ones who really deserved compassion. “How much are those to be pitied,” he explained in a widely used ethics textbook that he published in 1839, “whose hearts remained cold” at “the nobleness of human nature” on display when a “citizen [is] bleeding and dying for his beloved country.” Lieber wrote to the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, saying the truth was that “blood” was the “vital juice” of civilization. (As for those lily-livered pacifists in his time who cited Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek, Lieber was apoplectic: “Christ taught principles,” he acknowledged, but they were “not absolute mathematical formulas [and] if the various passages of the Bible were to be taken literally, no book would contain greater contradictions.”)

When he was given the chance as a Columbia University law professor and government consultant to write rules for the Union Army in 1862, Lieber made them most consistent with the Clausewitzian agenda of intensifying war. Erected as one of its founding fathers later, Lieber was not really part of the tradition of making war humane. He condoned horrendous acts such as punishing civilians and denying quarter—which meant that, when enemies surrendered in hopes of avoiding death, you could kill them anyway. Instead, Lieber was an excellent example—like Clausewitz—of how those actually committed to intense war sometimes pretended to be friends of peace. For Lieber, anything necessary in war, more or less, ought to be legal; if there was such a thing as excess violence and suffering, it was because it was necessary to achieve victory, which hastened peace.

Clausewitz already got into the act. “Battle exists for its own sake alone,” he had insisted. But it also had an extra advantage. It “led directly to peace.” Lieber told a similar story as his master. “If destruction of the enemy is my object, it is not only my right, but my duty, to resort to the most destructive means.” But thankfully, he added, “the more actively this rule is followed out, the better for humanity.” Intensity bred pacification, albeit as a fringe benefit of an already great thing.

Intensity bred pacification, albeit as a fringe benefit of an already great thing.

Just before he gives his speech, Prince Andrei is passed on horseback by none other than Clausewitz himself. Tolstoy probably never read him. He gave the Prussian theoretician a cameo in War and Peace all the same, to doubt the value of “theory” in the face of the chaos and confusion that defined the clash of military forces. Famously, in War and Peace Tolstoy wanted to smash the Clausewitzian mythology of Napoleon and with it the whole idea that war was amenable to intentional control. As for theorizing about battle at windy altitudes, Tolstoy found it ridiculous, and Clausewitz trots through his scene to imply as much. Yet Tolstoy also has Clausewitz, in addition to delivering a disastrous plan for the next day’s battle, defend brutality, too: “The only aim is to weaken the enemy,” Clausewitz remarks from his saddle (in German in the Russian novel), “so one cannot, of course, take into account the losses of private persons.”

In his dream of not taking prisoners, Tolstoy’s character ironically sounded a Clausewitzian note. What Prince Andrei was suggesting in his speech was that intensification would lead to more humanity and less suffering over time—for all its brutality in the short run— precisely because it would lead to more peace. Not taking prisoners “by itself would change the whole war and make it less cruel,” Andrei says. If Clausewitz was right that intensity led indirectly to pacification, intensification also turned out to be more humane than humanization! On its own, paradoxically, humanization could foment more war, and less humane outcomes. Furthermore, Andrei insisted, making war more humane could lead war to be an easier matter to start: a less fateful and momentous choice, because the stakes were lower. “If there was none of this magnanimity in war,” he continued in his impassioned homily, “we should go to war only when it was worthwhile going to certain death.”

When audiences shrank from the argument that intense wars were good in themselves, advocates of intensification offered blind guesses about the future. It wasn’t just that bloody wars would become less routine. They also suggested that shock and awe would end more quickly once it started. As Lieber forecast, “intense wars are of short duration.”

Yet advocates of making war humane offered an exactly parallel guess on behalf of their own cause. Already in 1864, Gustave Moynier called the Geneva Convention the path down “a slope where there is no stopping; the end of the road cannot be less than the condemnation of war in absolute terms.” The laws of war would become “secret agents of pacification,” Moynier foresaw in one of his rare moments of visionary enthusiasm. “The humanization of war could end only in its abolition,” he promised his funders. “The [Geneva] Convention has furnished an argument in favor of the brotherhood of men. Recognizing that after all they all belong to the same family, men have concluded that they ought to begin by showing some regard for another’s suffering, up to a certain point . . . pending the time when a still stronger conviction of their common humanity shall lead them to understand that the very idea of their killing one another is monstrous.” In short, it was not intensification that would indirectly abet pacification, but humanization.

In fact, the argument that Tolstoy the novelist puts in Prince Andrei’s mouth depends for its success on complete speculation. Could it really work to make war more brutal in the short run so that it became less common and more humane in the long run? Was there evidence for that proposition in the history of Tolstoy’s own time, let alone the brutal and long wars of the twentieth century he did not live to see? Equally hypothetical and unproven, however, was the occasional suggestion of advocates of humanization like Moynier that they were the ones bringing about peace indirectly.

After a conversion experience, Tolstoy gave up Prince Andrei’s shortsighted view. But Aylmer Maude, his biographer and friend, was absolutely right that the speech anticipated Tolstoy’s mature attack on “humanity” in warfare on pacifist grounds, “like the lightning of a coming storm.” For Andrei’s main commitment is not to prediction but to truth and the risks of suppressing it. Prettification of evil is quite simply prevarication, and it could lead people to compromise with it. “Get rid of falsehood,” Andrei counsels, “and let war be war,” “the most horrible thing in life.” Soon Tolstoy devoted most of his energy to the different proposition that making war humane could court the risk of endless war, and above all cover up its horrors. It is the way he did so that applies to our own situation, as we endure the forever if occasionally more humane war of our time.


Excerpted from Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War by Samuel Moyn. Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Samuel Moyn. All rights reserved.

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a professor of history at Yale University. His books include The Last Utopia, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, and Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.

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