Ill-preparedness and its consequences are the themes of today’s reading.
We start with Zherkov who Bagration tasks with ordering the left flank to retreat. But Zherkov is not prepared to endure the battle raging on the front line of the left flank. He is too frightened. He panics. He does not deliver the order.
The consequence of this inaction is that the left flank, obviously, does not retreat. This problem is compounded by the fact that the left flank, at least the portion not on the front lines, “from privates to general” is not expecting battle. Instead they busy themselves with peaceful occupations like collecting firewood and feeding their horses.
Woe to them then when the French attack.
Our old friend Nikolai Rostov is part of a squadron of the left flank who is caught unawares. His initial reaction to the French onslaught is one of befuddlement. He looks to his commander but it appears that even the commander is unsure of what to do. And that’s when Rostov, ill-prepared though he is, is suddenly consumed with an inner elation and joy that drives him forward to meet his French adversaries in battle.
This elation is instantly converted into first confusion and then fear as he is knocked down from his horse by a shot from the French. Initially he believes himself to be dead. When he realizes that he is not dead, only injured, he understands that if he doesn’t do something quickly the approaching French enemy will certainly make sure that he is dead. This realization leads to one of the great passages of the novel:
He looked at the approaching Frenchmen, and though but a moment before he had been galloping to get at them and hack them to pieces, their proximity now seemed so awful that he could not believe his eyes. ‘What are they? Why are they running? Can they be coming at me? And why? To kill me? Me who everybody loves?’ He remembered his mother’s love for him, and his family’s, and his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible.
I’ve always loved this passage. It speaks to how absent minded and unaware we can be. After all, here is a man, Rostov, who is on a battlefield. Cannonade and artillery fire boom in the near distance. And, yet, even with all this data he cannot believe that someone would ever try to kill him.
Let’s not be Rostov. Let’s be prepared, at least as best we can be, for the vicissitudes of life.
It is in time of security that the soul should school itself to hardship, and while Fortune is benign it should gather strength to meet her harshness. In the midst of peace the soldier charges, he throws up a rampart when there is no enemy, he wearies himself with superfluous exertions, in order to make himself adequate to necessary exertions. If you don’t want a man to panic in action you must train him before hand. This is the program of the school which approaches actual want in its monthly imitation of poverty; the object is to be unflinching in the face of a situation they have often rehearsed.
Seneca, Letter on Holidays