Reminders for Officers


by Leo Tolstoy



But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin!  Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!  (Matthew 18:6-7)


In all soldiers’ quarters there hangs upon the wall a so-called Reminders for Soldiers, composed by General Dragomírov.  These Reminders are a conglomeration of stupid, vulgar, supposedly popular words (though they are quite foreign to any soldier), mixed with blasphemous quotations from the Gospel.  Gospel sayings are cited in confirmation of the statement that the soldiers must kill and chew their enemies: “If the bayonet is broken, beat him with the butt of your rifle.  If the butt won’t do, beat him with your fists.  If your fists give out, hang onto him with your teeth.”  At the end of the Reminders it says that God is the soldiers’ general.

Nothing proves more conclusively than these Reminders to what a terrible degree of ignorance, slavish obedience, and bestiality our Russians have come.  Ever since this most terrible blasphemy has made its appearance and was hung up in all the barracks – and this was done very long ago – not one priest (who, one would think, would be directly affected by the distortion of the meaning of the Gospel texts) has expressed his condemnation of this disgusting production.  It continues to be printed in millions of copies and to be read by millions of soldiers, who accept this terrible work as a guide in their activity.

These Reminders long ago roused my indignation, and now, fearing that I shall not be able to do so again before my death, I have written an address to the soldiers.  In it, I try to remind them that, as men and Christians, they have quite different obligations before God than those that are put forth in these Reminders.  Such Reminders, I think, are not only necessary for the soldiers, but to an even greater degree for the officers.  (By officers I mean all the military authorities, from the ensign to the general.)  These officers enter military service or remain in it, not from compulsion, like the soldiers, but from choice.  These Reminders, it seems to me, are particularly needed in our time.

It was all very well one hundred or fifty years ago, when war was considered to be an inevitable condition of the life of nations.  The men belonging to the nation with which war was waged were considered barbarians, infidels, or malefactors, and it did not even occur to the military that they would be needed for the suppression and pacification of their own nations.  It was all very well then for a man to put on a bright-colored, lace-covered uniform, to walk with a rattling saber and jingling spurs, to put his horse through maneuvers in front of the regiment, and to imagine that he was a hero who was prepared to sacrifice his life in the defense of his country.  But now, frequent international relations – mercantile, social, scientific, and artistic – have so brought the nations together that any war among the modern nations presents itself in the form of a family dissension, which violates the most sacred ties of men.  There are hundreds of peace societies and thousands of articles published, not only in special periodicals, but also in the general newspapers.  These never cease in every manner possible to make clear the madness of militarism and the possibility, and even the necessity, of abolishing war.  And, most important of all, the military has more and more frequently been called out, not against a foreign enemy in order to defend the country against attacking conquerors or to increase the country’s glory and power, but against unarmed factory hands and peasants.  Galloping on a steed in a lace-bedecked uniform before a company of soldiers is no longer the case of trifling, pardonable ambition that it used to be, but is now something quite different.

In olden times, perhaps in the days of Nicholas I, it never as much as occurred to any one that armies were needed primarily for the purpose of shooting unarmed citizens.  But now troops are regularly quartered in capitals and manufacturing centers in order to be ready to disperse the working men.  Hardly a month passes but that the troops are taken out of their barracks with their ammunition and are located in a secure place, ready at any moment to shoot at the masses.

The use of the army against the masses has not only become a customary phenomenon, but the troops are organized in advance to be ready for such emergencies.  The government does not conceal the fact that the distribution of recruits according to districts is intentionally made in such a way that the soldiers are never drafted from the localities where they are quartered.  This is done to avoid the necessity of having the soldiers shoot at their own parents.

The Emperor of Germany has said plainly at every levy of recruits (most recently in his speech of May 23, 1901) that the soldiers swearing allegiance to him belong to him, body and soul, and that they have but one enemy, his enemy, and that his enemies are the socialists (that is, the working people), whom the soldiers must, if commanded, shoot down (niederschiessen), even though they may be their own brothers or even parents.

Besides, if in former times the troops were used against the masses, those against whom they were used were, or at least were supposed to be, malefactors, ready to ruin and kill peaceful citizens, and who, therefore, had to be destroyed for the common good.  But now everybody knows that those against whom the troops are sent out are for the most part peaceable, industrious people, who merely desire to enjoy the fruits of their labors without interference.  Thus, the chief and constant use of troops in our time no longer consists in an imaginary defense against infidels and foreign enemies, nor against riotous malefactors and domestic enemies, but in killing their unarmed brothers, who are not all malefactors but peaceable, industrious people, who only do not wish to have what they earn taken away from them.  Military service in our time, when its chief purpose is the threat of killing and murder to keep the enslaved people in those unjust conditions in which they are, is no longer a noble, but a despicable business.

And so it is necessary for the officers who are now serving to think about whom they are serving, and to ask themselves whether what they are doing is good or bad.

I know there are many officers, especially among the higher ranks, who, by all kinds of reflections on the subjects of Orthodoxy, autocracy, integrity of the state, the inevitability of imminent war, the need of order, the senselessness of the socialistic ravings, and so forth, try to prove to themselves that their activity is rational and useful, and has nothing immoral about it.  But in the depth of their hearts, they themselves do not believe in what they say, and the more sensible and the older they are, the less do they believe in it.

I remember how pleasantly I was surprised by my friend and comrade in the service, a very ambitious man, who had devoted all his life to military service and had attained the highest ranks and distinctions (he was an adjutant-general and a general of artillery).  He told me that he had burned his memoirs on the wars in which he had taken part.  He had changed his view on military matters and now considered every war a bad business, which ought not to be encouraged by busying oneself with it, but, on the contrary, ought in every way possible to be discredited.  Many officers believe the same thing while they serve, though they do not say so.  In fact, no thinking officer can think differently.  We need but consider, beginning with the lowest ranks and ending with the highest, what constitutes the occupation of all the officers.  From the beginning to the end of their service – I am speaking of the officers in active service – their activity, with the exception of short periods when they go to war and are busy with murder themselves, consists in the attainment of two ends: in instructing the soldiers in the best possible way to kill men and in teaching them such obedience that they will be able to mechanically, without any reflection, do what their commander may demand of them.  In olden times they used to say, “Flog two unmercifully and get one well instructed,” and so they did.  If now the percentage of those flogged is less, the principle remains the same.  People cannot be brought to that animal and even mechanical condition, in which they will do what is most repugnant to their natures and the faith professed by them, murder at the command of any superior, unless cunning deception and cruel violence has been practiced against them.  And so it is done.

Lately, a great sensation was created in the French press by the disclosure by some journalists of the terrible tortures practiced on the soldiers of the disciplinary battalions on the island of Obrou, not six hours’ travel from Paris.  Some of the persons punished had their arms and legs tied together behind their backs and were thrown on the floor.  Screws were put on the thumbs of others and were tightened so that every motion produced excruciating pain.  Still other men were suspended by their legs, and so forth.

When we see trained animals performing what is contrary to their natures – dogs walking on their fore legs, elephants whirling barrels, tigers playing with lions, and so forth – we know that all this has been obtained by tortures, hunger, the whip, and the hot iron.  We know the same when we see men, in uniforms and with their guns, stand motionless, or go through the same motion with absolute regularity – run, jump, shoot, shout, and execute those beautiful parades and maneuvers that emperors and kings admire so much and brag of to one another.  It is impossible to drive everything human out of a man, and to bring him to the condition of a machine, without torturing him – not in a simple way, but torturing and deceiving him in the most refined and cruel manner.

You officers do all this.  Your service consists in this, from the highest to the lowest ranks, with rare exceptions when you go to war.

A youth comes to you.  He is taken away from his family and is settled at the opposite end of the world.  He is impressed with the idea that the deceptive oath, forbidden by the Gospel, which he has taken, binds him irretrievably, just as a cock placed on the floor, on which a chalk-line is drawn from his beak, imagines that he is tied with this line.  He comes to you with full humility and with the hope that you, the elders, who are wiser and more learned than he, will teach him everything that is good.  But you, instead of freeing him from those superstations which he has brought with him, inoculate in him new, senseless, coarse, and harmful superstitions: about the sacredness of the flag, the almost divine significance of the Czar, and the duty of submitting without a murmur to his superiors.  When, with the aid of methods worked out in your business for the stultification of men, you bring him to a condition worse than that of an animal, in which he is ready to kill anybody he is commanded to kill, even his unarmed brothers, you proudly show him to your superiors and receive thanks and rewards for this.  It is terrible for a man to be a murderer himself, but to bring men to this by means of cunning and cruel methods, men who are your brothers and who confide in you, is a most terrible crime.  You are committing this crime, and in this does your service consist.

So it is not surprising that among you, more than in any other circle, flourish all those things that drown the conscience: smoking, cards, drunkenness, and debauchery.  And suicides occur more frequently in your ranks than anywhere else.

“Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

You frequently say that you serve because, if you did not serve, the existing order would be impaired and there would be disorder and all kinds of calamities.

But, in the first place, it is not true that you are concerned about the maintenance of the existing order.  You are only concerned about your personal advantage.

In the second place, even if your refraining from doing military service would impair the existing order, this would not at all prove that you must continue to do what is bad, but only that the order that will be destroyed through your abstinence ought to be destroyed.  Even if the most useful institutions existed, such as hospitals, schools, and homes for the aged, and they were maintained from the revenue derived from houses of prostitution, all the usefulness of these charitable institutions could not keep a woman in her disgraceful calling, if she wished to free herself from it.

“It is not my fault,” the woman would say, “that yon have established your charitable institutions on debauchery.  I do not want to be a harlot, and I will have nothing to do with your institutions.”  The same ought to be said by every military man, when he is told of the necessity of maintaining the existing order, which is based on the readiness to commit murder.  A military man should say, “Establish a general order such that murder will not be necessary, and I will not violate it.  I simply do not want to be a murderer.”

Many others of you say, “I was educated that way.  I am fettered by my position, and I cannot get out of it.”  But even that is not true.

You can always get out of your position.  If you do not, it is because you prefer to live and act against your conscience rather than lose some of the worldly advantages that you derive from your dishonorable calling.  Only forget that you are officers and remember that you are men, and the way out from your condition will at once present itself to you.  This way out, the best and most honorable, is for you to call together the men that you command, to step to the front, to beg the soldiers’ pardon for the wrong you have done to them by deceiving them, and to stop being a military man.  This act seems very bold and seems to call for much courage; and yet, much less courage is needed in this act than in storming a fort or challenging to a duel for an insult to your uniform – things you are always ready to do in your capacity as a military man.

But even if you are not able to act in this manner, you are still able, if you have come to understand the criminality of military service, to leave that service and prefer any other activity to it, even though it would be less advantageous.

But if you are not able to do even that, the solution to the question of whether you will continue to serve will be put off for you until that time – and this time will soon arrive for everyone – when you shall stand face to face with an unarmed crowd of peasants or factory hands, and you shall be commanded to shoot at them.  And then, if any human feeling is left in you, you will be compelled to refuse to obey and, in consequence of this, you will certainly leave the service.

I know there are many officers still, from the highest to the lowest ranks, who are so ignorant or so hypnotized that they do not see the necessity of any of these three conclusions.  They calmly continue to serve and, under the present conditions, are prepared to shoot at their brothers, and are even proud of the fact.  Fortunately, public opinion more and more punishes these men with contempt and loathing, and their number is growing less and less.

Thus, in our time, when the fratricidal purpose of the army has become obvious, it is impossible for the officers to continue the ancient traditions of the military self-satisfied bravado.  They cannot even, without recognizing their human degradation and shame, continue the criminal business of teaching simple people, who have faith in them, how to commit murder, much less take part in the murder of unarmed men themselves.

It is this that every thinking and conscientious officer of our time should understand and remember.


Gáspra, December 7,1901




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