Much of the novel focuses on major events of the Napoleonic Wars, especially during the years 1805-1807 and the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy examines the details of war from many different angles—from councils of generals pre-battle to young hussar cadets under fire for the first time. Though Tolstoy discusses the broader scale of the wars and their international impact for decades to come, he also examines the behavior of individual soldiers to reveal what he believes about war as a human phenomenon. On a human scale, war ultimately comes down to fellow human beings killing each other, which makes no sense regardless of war’s theoretical objectives. Because war is irrational, people behave irrationally in battle, and in the aftermath, they often find their sense of morality has been eroded by the experience. By focusing on war’s distortions of human beings, Tolstoy suggests that, regardless of purported justifications, war is fundamentally a senseless event that diminishes people’s humanity.
War causes people to act irrationally and inhumanely. The day before the battle of Schöngraben, for instance, enemy soldiers joke around with each other, despite the fact they’ll be killing each other the next day. Tolstoy implies that this is senseless behavior—either these men are enemies or they’re not. Furthermore, Nikolai Rostov behaves irrationally under fire. When an enemy soldier charges him, he grabs his pistol—but instead of shooting the man, he throws the gun at him and runs away. Despite his training and ideals, Nikolai behaves senselessly under fire, and Tolstoy suggests that he does so because the moment is senseless—war brings that out of people.
While many soldiers enter war full of ideals, they’re inevitably disillusioned by fighting and their morality is often compromised. For instance, even though he’s an honest, idealistic person, Nikolai lies about his courage at Schöngraben in order to conform to a conventional narrative of wartime courage. Describing the battle to friends, he “imperceptibly, involuntarily, and inevitably […] went over into untruth,” feeling that had he told the more complicated truth to his civilian friends—who don’t understand war—they’d make him feel ashamed. This shows how war—and its incomprehensible senselessness—is eroding his honesty and morality. Then, Nikolai is further disillusioned at the battle of Ostrovna. After being rewarded for capturing a Frenchman, Nikolai reflects that this man was terribly afraid and hadn’t really done anything wrong, which makes Nikolai doubt his own heroism in capturing him. Once his enemy becomes humanized in his eyes, he wonders if “heroism” is an empty notion after all, showing how war distorts people’s values, propping up immoral notions of heroism and dehumanizing others.
Ordinary people’s morals can be compromised by war, too. After the invasion of Moscow, for instance, Count Rastopchin stirs up a Russian mob to execute a supposed traitor: “The barrier of human feeling, strained to the utmost in holding back the crowd, instantly broke. The crime had begun, it was necessary to go through with it,” so the mob ruthlessly beats Vereshchagin to death as a scapegoat. Given a suitable provocation, “human feeling” gives way to irrational, animalistic passion in times of war.
Tolstoy often restates the view that the Napoleonic Wars were ultimately just a mass of fellow Christians murdering each other for no reason. At the end of the book, he goes further in saying that there’s no explaining the war except as an example of the “zoological law” that males tend to fight and kill each other. No matter what ideals people name, Tolstoy holds that war is ugly, unjustifiable, and degrades everyone it touches.