Letter to a Corporal

University Essays: Lesson 12, Reading 2

by Leo Tolstoy

You wonder how it is soldiers are taught that it is right to kill men in certain cases and in war, where as in the Scripture, which is acknowledged to be sacred by those who teach this, there is nothing resembling such a permission, but there is the very opposite —a prohibition to commit murder and even any insult against men, a prohibition to do to others what one does not wish to have done to oneself; you ask me whether this is not a deception, and if so, for whose advantage it is practiced.

Yes, it is a deception, which is practiced in favor of those who are accustomed to living by the sweat and blood of other people and who, for this purpose, have been distorting Christ’s teaching, which was given men for their good, but which now, in its distorted form, has become the chief source of all the calamities of men.

This happened in the following way: The government and all those men of the upper classes who adhere to the government and live by the labors of others have to have means for controlling the laboring masses; the army is such a means. The defense against foreign enemies is only an excuse. The German government frightens its nation with the Russians and the French; the French frightens its nation with the Germans; the Russian frightens its nation with the Germans and the French, and so it is with, all the nations; but neither the Germans, nor the Russians, nor the French wish to fight with their neighbors and with other nations; they prefer to live in peace with them and are
afraid of war more than of anything in the world. But, to have an excuse in their control of the laboring masses, the governments and the upper idle classes act like a gypsy, who whips his horse around the corner and then pretends that he is not able to hold it back. They stir up their people and another government, and then pretend that for the good or for the defense of their nation, they cannot help but declare war, which again is profitable for the generals, officers, officials, merchants and, in general, for the wealthy classes. In reality, war is only an inevitable consequence of the existence of the armies, but the armies are needed by the governments merely for the purpose of controlling their own laboring masses.

It is a criminal business, but the worst thing about it is this, that the governments, to have a rational foundation for their control of the masses, are obliged to pretend that they are professing the highest religious teaching known to men, that is, the Christian, and, in this teaching, educate their subjects. This teaching is, in its essence, opposed, not only to every murder, but even to every violence, and so, to be able to control the masses and be considered Christian, the governments had to distort Christianity and
to conceal its true meaning from the masses and thus to deprive men of the good which Christ brought to them.

This distortion of Christianity took place long ago, in the time of the malefactor, Emperor Constantine, who, for this, was canonized a saint. All the subsequent governments, especially our own Russian government, have tried with all their strength to maintain this distortion and not to allow the masses to see the true meaning of Christianity, because, if they saw it, they would come to understand that the governments, with their taxes, soldiers, prisons, gallows and cheating priests, are not only no pillars of Christianity, such as they pretend to be, but its greatest enemies. In consequence of this distortion, there result those deceptions which startled you so much, and all those terrible calamities from which the masses suffer.

The masses are crushed, robbed, impoverished, ignorant — they are dying out. Why? Because the land is in the hands of the rich; because the masses are enslaved in factories,
in plants in their daily occupations; because they are fleeced for the taxes, and the price for their labor is lowered, and the price for what they need is raised. How can they be freed? Shall the land again be taken away from the rich? But if that is done, the soldiers will come, will kill off the rioters and will lock them up in prisons. Shall the factories, the plants, be taken away? The same will happen. Stick out in a strike? But that will never happen — the rich can stick out longer than the laborers, and the armies will always be on the side of the capitalists. The masses will never get away from that want in which they are held, so long as the armies shall be in the power of the ruling classes.

But who are the armies which hold the masses in this slavery? Who are those soldiers who will shoot at the peasants who have taken possession of the land, and at the strikers, if they do not disperse, and at the smugglers, who import wares without paying the revenue — who will put into prisons and keep there those who refuse to pay the taxes? These soldiers are the same peasants whose land has been taken away, the same strikers who want to raise their wages, the same payers of the taxes who want to be freed
from these payments.

Why do these men shoot at their brothers? Because it has been impressed upon them that the oath which they are compelled to take upon entering military service is obligatory for them, and that they may not kill men in general, but may kill them by command of the authorities, that is, the same deception which startled so much is practiced upon them. But here arises the question — how can people of sound mind, who frequently know the rudiments and are even educated, believe in such a palpable
lie? No matter how little educated a man may be, he nonetheless cannot help knowing that Christ did not permit any murder, but taught meekness, humility, forgiveness of offenses, love of enemies; he cannot help but see that, on the basis of the Christian teaching, he cannot make a promise in advance that he will kill all those whom he is
commanded to kill.

Thus, the deception of the soldiers, which consists in this, that they are impressed with the idea that it is possible without sinning to kill men by command of the authorities,
does not stand alone, but is connected with a whole system of deceptions, without which this particular deception would be ineffective.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372

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