September 8, 1812
Comment ca va? For me, I am well as I could expect after the carnage I’ve witnessed the past weeks, but yesterday, the battle went on as waves of men met death as a flood, a race to escape this uncertainty. We continued further into Russia, the villages burned by the time we arrive, the looters scavenge like stray dogs. We meet no one they isn’t killed or dying already. The Grand Army (of almost 600,000) of just a few weeks ago bears little resemblance to the haggard troops marching today. Each of these small skirmishes cost of a few thousand lives, each night’s bivouac costs dozens more with disease or succumbing to injury. So many troops disappear I don’t believe anyone really knows if their absence is desertion, sickness or lost in battle. This rhythm of death exploded yesterday and today each side has the audacity to claim victory. What vile victory do they claim when 40,000 Russians lay dead? Corpses yet to be collected, already rotting and mutilated – they fought, then they retreated towards Moscow. Some say we shouldn’t chase further in the heart of Russia. I am inclined to agree but my reasons are selfishly personal rather than strategic. What good is a fight when 20,000 of my own French compatriots died in scant hours today?
‘My’ Army is half the size to the most optimistic eyes, but you; you are still so far away. I wonder what you are doing this moment? What will you do today, tomorrow? I see you going to your classes at the University – the mahogany wisps of your short-cropped hair catching sun as you move past the bright cafes, waving to a friend. I don’t dare think of life at home much, the people, the places. Too much is so painful. Just, and only, of you.
“This separation somehow will make our life better and love stronger,” I tell myself, though each day makes a bigger task to convince myself. Despite the constant rhythm of death, the soldiers keep up a remarkable spirit of obedience to the campaign. Indeed there is little doubt of the reasons for the invasion discussed (though murmurs of dissatisfaction more often arise about the rations!), nor the wisdom of Napoleon’s motives. N. knows his regiments like children; he rides the lines greeting old soldiers like school chums. Part friend, part father, counseling, supporting with gilded words of honor at home – the rewards of victory, the respect & awe of the world, the supplication of the Russians, the praise in family. “I was at the battle at Borodino of Shervadino,” “I defeated the monarchs.” I’ve no regard for those who rule due to wealth & greed stockpiling wealth over generations while the laborers of the country are relegated to poverty and scorn. These same farmers who now populate the infantry & are dying by hundreds and thousands. Beggars before but now equal – though, in that they are the poorest, only somewhat equal. But the democracy I dream of, benefits those most who understand it least, those who feel it the most, and are the very origins of democracy. Plato the Greek says, “democracy emerges when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents & give the rest civil rights and opportunities of office.” Of these uneducated, ‘salt of France,’ Plato says “the mass of the people who earn their own living, take little interest in politics & aren’t very well off. They are the largest class in a democracy and once assembled are supreme. I don’t mean disrespect when speaking of their lack of education. Indeed they are the impetus for change & the choke against democracy turning into tyranny.
For my part, I don’t want to fight for freedom; I simply want to be free to be. While it seems all men at war would feel the abhorrence of fighting, the routine of waiting for orders & following orders provides a comfortable routine that appeals to a primal instinct in some soldiers. You can tell the one who live for the love of the fight. The confident exuberance they carry themselves with. The same as anyone might when going into an arena in which they know they can dominate. But I do not wish to be them nor do they wish to be me. I am here with the aim of returning safely to greedily savor the life in the New France, strolling with you, hand in hand, your cheek curling against my shoulder. You soul unguarded, sharing your secrets. I want to live in a republic where we don’t have time for war because we are too occupied celebrating love, spreading charity for kindness sake, creating music, making the cities beautiful & countryside spotted with healthy farms. Liberty to speak, to choose your vocation, religion & attain any station in life are the hallmarks of democracy.
I am not so naive to think that greed will not creep in to undermine the benefits of all for the advancement of a few. It is clear that some humans will always proceed at a quicker pace, accumulating wealth & subsequent powers through skill, cunning, or random chance, or alas, from ill-gotten means from robbing to corruption – but a rule of law based on the will of the people is the best remedy I’ve heard. The challenge is how to effectuate a democracy without bloodshed? How to bring revolution without drawing sword & summoning cannon, sacrificing the dreams & limbs of thousands or millions. How to organize peasants & merchants with the collective interest leading the way over greed? Is it the job of our Army to bring this curriculum to a sovereign dominion?
Though I hold the ideals of the revolution in a lofty place, I would suggest that a republic refines & demonstrates a sublime model as a beacon and a lesson rather than delivering precepts by force. Such action is tyranny & corruption of the ethos of equality & liberty.
Should I feel guilty that I do not wish to fight? That I wish to bring change in a peaceful manner? Is it greedy that I desire these simple things? How is it that a hot bath or a cup of buttermilk is more important to me than the annexation of yet another country? Do I care more about ‘us’ then I care about the Poles, the Prussians, the Austrians, Russians, Italians? Must well all be homogenized to instill peace? Are we building tolerance & mutual dependence by installing Frenchmen to serve as administrators to be scorned by the people they are charged to lead?
When I think of freedom, I do not think of the groaning, bloody bodies strewn across a moist valley. No, I think of quiet mornings, tea outdoors, I think of 3 milk goats, a small vineyard. I dream of a small family of children who will never taste war but instead only joy & respect for the republic they live in. I imagine a hog each year, named but butchered for bacon through the winter. I imagine walks in the hills, a picnic lunch next to a field of cornflowers. Head to head, walking slowly together, the comfort of companionship. Rousseau says ‘Friendship, confidence, intimacy, tranquility of mind, how delicious are your seasonings!’
Like Jean Jacques, and most any other, I have always felt & declared that is impossible to describe true enjoyment. I feel I may find the words when at last I see you, your twinkling eyes and hair pushed back loosely waiting for me – the passage of time lost as I find you as I left you. Vibrant, triumphant & fond of me just for being me – and ‘we’ being able to be ‘us’ – alone and together. I will send this now as we are heading east tomorrow.
J’aime toi, Henri