Picasso’s Guernica is not looked at, it is listened to. The stark black-and-white oil painting howls at the spectator in hellish lamentation as the grating scrape of state violence bellows forth from the canvas. Its images are a cartoonish chaos and a careful confusion: A screaming bare breasted woman, a monstrous Pietà, cradles her lifeless child alongside the decapitated head of her compatriot. Figures flee from raging flames. One woman, engulfed in those flames, raises her arms and screams out for help that will never arrive. Guernica is plangent witness to the atrocity of war.
Where Picasso shouts Tolstoy whispers. Today’s chapter achieves the same devastating articulation as Guernica with only the hushed discharge of distant gunshot. That single gunshot, the horror that steals Platon Karataev’s life away, lays bare the dehumanizing and deforming powers of war. Most apparent is its senselessness. Why did this aging peasant have to march in the first place? What awesome threat did he display that demanded his capture and slaughter?
Platon’s death also shows the horrid mental disorder provoked by war. Pierre looks to Platon shortly before his execution. Platon’s dying eyes cry out for company but Pierre refuses his friend the sympathy. Pierre can’t even bring himself to mourn Platon’s passing. When the shot rings out Pierre occupies his thoughts instead with how long a march it must be until they arrive at Smolensk. A dog, howling over Platon’s body, summons more empathy for the deceased than the entire human caravan.
The vehicle that drives men to slaughter their fellow man at scale is patriotism. We’ve seen this throughout the novel. The French, convinced of their natural superiority, seek to subdue the lesser nations of Europe. The Russian response to French aggression is just as jingoistic and damaging to brotherhood. The bombing of Guernica was executed by the nationalistic nations that later led the world to war. This foul patriotism that locates greatness in the accident of birthplace is a sickness. The antidote, perhaps, is the cosmopolitanism argued for in A Year of War and Peace.
Patriotism is in our day an unnatural, irrational, and harmful feeling, and is the cause of a great part of the ills from which mankind is suffering; and that, consequently, this feeling should not be cultivated, as is now being done, but should, on the contrary, be suppressed and eradicated by all means available to rational men.
Leo Tolstoy, Patriotism and Government