On Miracles and Mistakes
In the Father Brown story “The Blue Cross” G.K. Chesterton wrote that the most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. Lucky it is for Kutuzov and the Russian army that they sometimes do. Otherwise, I think, this novel we’re reading would be more novella than prose epic.
At the beginning of today’s chapter we learn that the French are quickly closing in on the entire Russian army. Kutuzov is presented with three unpalatable options, each of which seems to end with a decisive French victory and Russian humiliation. He makes his decision.
He decides to send Bagration’s vanguard to confront the approaching French army on the Vienna-Znaim road with orders to forestall the French advance for as long as possible. It’s long odds. Bagration is vastly outnumbered. The idea, though, is that Bagration’s agitation of the French army will allow Kutuzov the time and opportunity to unite with more troops arriving from Russia.
And then the miracle.
Murat, leading the French advance-guard, mistakenly believes that the entire Russian army is approaching and that Bagration’s troops are just the first to arrive. If, as Murat assumes, the entire Russian army is marching forward, then he can wait until they are all crossing the Vienna bridge and he can crush them all. So he offers a three day truce on the condition that Bagration makes no move. The idea is that this will allow the rest of Kutuzov’s army to catch up and then Murat can attack and end the Russian rebellion with one Tarkinian swift stroke.
Bagration, on Kutuzov’s orders, accepts these terms. Kutuzov, in turn, orders his troops to speed up their retreat. It’s starting to look as if they might get out of this alive.
Meanwhile, Napoleon learns of Murat’s decision and, sensing the Russian ruse, directs Murat to abandon the truce and attack immediately.
Let’s temporarily detach ourselves from our Russian sympathies and instead unite them with the French.
Here we have a man entrusted with great responsibility concerning the French campaign against the Austrians and Russians. Though a dash of nepotism certainly played a role in his elevation to this position — he was, after all, brother-in-law to Napoleon — by all historical accounts his military service merited such promotion. And in this chapter he acts faithfully to his cause. Given all relevant information he makes a decision he believes will result in French victory. Of course, as Napoleon is able to discern, the decision is a blunder.
But like Othello taking Iago’s council, Fredo working with Johnny Ola, or that time I decided to get on the miraculously empty subway car during rush hour, we all make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable and we must learn how to properly respond to the misjudgements we make in life.
Do not be disgusted, discouraged, or dissatisfied if you do not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but when you have failed, return again, and be content if the greater part of what you do is consistent with man’s nature, and love thus to which you return.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations