Reminders for Soldiers


by Leo Tolstoy



There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matthew 10:26-28)


Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!”  (Acts 5:29)


You are a soldier, you have been taught to shoot, stab, march, go through gymnastic exercises, read books, and have been taken out to military exercises and parades.  Maybe you went through a war, fighting the Turks or the Chinese, doing everything you were commanded to do.  It did not even occur to you to ask yourself whether what you were doing was good or bad.

But now the command is given to your company or squadron to start out, taking along live ammunition.  You travel or march, without asking where you are being taken.

You are led up to a village or factory, and you see from afar that there is a crowd of villagers in the open square – factory hands, men, women with their children, old men and women.  The governor and the prosecutor, accompanied by policemen, walk up to the crowd and talk to the people about something.  The crowd is at first silent, then the people begin to cry out louder and louder, and the officials go away from the crowd.  You see that these peasants and factory hands are riotous, and that you have been brought there to pacify them.  The officials several times walk up to the people and walk away again, but the shouts grow louder and louder.  The officials talk among themselves, and you are commanded to load your gun with ammunition.  You see before yourself people, the same as those from among whom you were taken: men in sleeveless coats, short fur coats, and rough shoes; women in kerchiefs and jackets, just such women as your wife or mother.

You are ordered to fire the first shot above the heads of the crowd, but the people do not disperse and shout louder than before.  Then you are commanded to shoot, not over their heads, but straight into the crowd.

You have been taught that you are not responsible for what will happen from your firing, but you know that the man who, weltering in blood, fell down from your shot was killed by you and by no one else; and you know that you might not have shot, and then the man would not have been killed.

What are you to do?

It is not enough for you to drop your gun and refuse just now to shoot at your brothers.  Tomorrow the same may be repeated, and so, whether you wish it or not, you must consider the situation and ask yourself what this calling of a soldier is, which has brought you to such a state that you are compelled to shoot at your own unarmed brothers.

In the Gospel it says that we must not only not kill our brothers, but also that we must not do what leads to murder, that we must not be angry with our brothers, and that we must love our enemies instead of hating them.

In the Law of Moses it says distinctly, “Thou shalt not kill,” without any explanations as to who may be killed and who may not.  But, in the rules that you have been taught, it says that a soldier must fulfill any command of his superior, no matter what it may be, except a command against the Czar.  In the explanation of the sixth commandment it says that, though the commandment forbids killing, he who kills in war does not sin against this commandment.[1]  But in the Reminders to Soldiers, which hangs in every barracks and which you have read and heard many times, it says that a soldier must kill men.  “Three come at you.  The first you stab, the second you shoot, and the third you settle with the bayonet…  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.[2]

You are told that you must kill because you have taken the oath, and that the authorities, and not you, win be responsible for your acts.  But before you swore, before you promised people to do their will, you were, even without an oath, obliged in everything to do the will of God, of Him who gave you life – but God has commanded us not to kill.

Thus you could not swear that you would do everything demanded of you by men.  For this reason it says directly in the Gospel (Matthew 5:34), “Do not swear at all…  Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’  Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”  And the same is said in James 5:12: “Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else.”  Thus the oath itself is a sin.  And when they say that not you, but the authorities, will be responsible for your acts, it is also untrue.  Can your conscience be in the corporal, sergeant, captain, colonel, or anybody else, and not in yourself?  Nobody can decide for you what you can and must do, and what you cannot and must not do.  A man is always responsible for what he does.  The sin of adultery many times lighter than the sin of murder, and yet no man can say to another, “Commit adultery.  I take your sin upon myself, because I am your superior.”

Adam, so the Bible tells, sinned against God and then said that his wife had told him to eat the apple, and that the devil had tempted her.  God justified neither Adam nor Eve, and told them that Adam would be punished for having listened to the voice of his wife, and that his wife would be likewise punished for having obeyed the serpent.  He did not free them, but punished them.  Will not God say the same to you, when you kill a man and say that your captain commanded you to do so?

The deception is seen even in the rule where it says that a soldier must fulfill all the commandments of his superiors and adds the words, “Except such orders that are to the harm of the Czar.”  If a soldier, before fulfilling the commands of his superior, must decide whether they are or are not against the Czar, how much more must he, before fulfilling the command of his superior, consider whether what his officer demands of him is or is not against the highest Czar, God himself!  But there is no act that is more opposed to God’s will than the killing of men.  And so it is not right to obey men, if they command you to kill men.  But if you obey and kill, you do so only for your advantage, in order not to be punished.  Thus, by killing on the command of your superiors, you are as much a murderer as that robber who kills a merchant in order to rob him.  The robber is tempted by the money, and you are tempted by the desire not to be punished and to receive a reward.  A man himself always answers for his acts before God.

No power can, as the authorities want it to, make of you, of a living man, a dead thing that may be handled as desired.  Christ taught men that they are all sons of God, and so a Christian cannot give his conscience into the power of another man, no matter by what title he may be called – king, czar, or emperor.  The fact that the men, who have taken command over you, demand that you shall kill your brothers proves only that these men are cheats and that, therefore, you must not obey them.  Shameful is the position of the harlot who is always prepared to give her body to anyone who is pointed out to her by her master; but more shameful is the position of the soldier who is always prepared to com­mit the greatest crime: to murder anyone who is pointed out to him by his superior.

And so, if you really want to act in a godly fashion, you must give up the disgraceful and godless calling of a soldier and be prepared to bear all the sufferings that they will impose upon you for this.

Thus the real reminder to a Christian soldier is not the one that says, “God is the soldiers’ general,” and other blasphemies such as, “A soldier must, while obeying his superiors in everything, be prepared to kill strangers or friends, even his unarmed brothers.”  He must remember the words of Scripture that God must be obeyed more than men, and he must not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.[3]

In this consists the true soldiers’ reminder, which does not deceive.


Gáspra, December 7,1901




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[1] In the Rules it says: “By the sixth commandment God forbids us to take the lives of men by violence or cunning, or in any way to violate the security and peace of our neighbor, and so by this commandment quarrels, anger, hatred, envy, and cruelty are also forbidden.  But he who kills the enemy in war does not sin against this commandment, because by war he defends our faith, our Czar, and our country.”

[2] Reminders to Soldiers, collected by Dragomírov, 19th edition, St. Petersburg, 1899.

[3] In Dragomírov’s Reminders, three passages from the Gospel are cited: John 15:13, Matthew 10:22, and 10:39.  John is quoted, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” apparently in the sense that soldiers must fight most desperately in a battle in order to defend their comrades.  But these words in no way refer to military matters.  Instead, they have the very opposite meaning.  Verses 10-13 say, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Thus the words, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” do not at all mean that a soldier most defend his comrades, but that a Christian must be prepared to lay down his life for the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments about this.  It means that men should love one another, and so must be prepared to sacrifice his life rather than to kill men.

From Matthew, the end of verse 10:22 is quoted, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved,” apparently in the sense that a soldier who will fight bravely will be saved from the enemy.  Again, the meaning of this passage is the very opposite of the one which the author wants to give to it.  The whole verse reads, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”  Thus it is obvious that this verse cannot have reference to the soldiers.  Soldiers are not hated by anyone in the name of Christ.  It is clear that only those men who, in the name of Christ, decline to do what the world demands of them are those who are hated in the name of Christ.  In the present case, these are the soldiers who do not obey when they are commanded to kill.  Continued…

Again, the end of Matthew 10:39 is quoted, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” again in the sense that he who shall be killed in war will receive his reward in heaven.  But the meaning is obviously not that.  Verse 38 says, “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  Only after that, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” is added.  He who would save his carnal life shall lose his true life in the process, while he who, for the sake of fulfilling the teaching of love, does not save his carnal life shall attain the true, spiritual, everlasting life.

Therefore, the three passages do not say, as the author wants them to, that, in order to obey the authorities, it is necessary to fight, beat, and chew men.  On the contrary, all three passages, like the Gospel in general, say one and the same thing: that a Christian cannot be a murderer and, therefore, cannot be a soldier.  And so the words, “A soldier is Christ’s warrior,” placed in the Reminders after the Gospel verses, do not mean at all what the author thinks.  Indeed, a soldier, if he is a Christian, can and must be Christ’s warrior.  He will be Christ’s warrior, not when, obeying the will of his superiors, who have prepared him for murder, he kills unarmed men, but only when, in the name of Christ, he will refuse to follow the godless and disgraceful calling of a soldier.  He will war, not upon foreign enemies, but upon his superiors who are deceiving him and his brothers, and he will not fight with the bayonet, fist, or teeth, but will, in humble reasonableness and readiness, prefer to suffer all kinds of sufferings and even death, rather than remain a soldier, i.e. a man who is prepared to kill those who are pointed out to him by his superiors.