Confession – Leo Tolstoy

Originally posted on Blog-City on January 12th, 2005 

This isn’t necessarily a “review” per se, but it was inspired by a book that I still own and may get back to reading again one of these days….I was looking thru an old CD that I had burned of old emails and papers I had written and came across it…This particular “entry” was an essay I had to write on an application to The College of William and Mary in Virginia back in 2000 when I was preparing to leave the Navy. Hope you enjoy it, but like I said, not necessarily a “review”. Another interesting sidenote, George Bailey of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and Holden Caulfield of “Catcher In The Rye” were also started and stopped before I settled on this particular subject…++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++
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I stopped and started this essay several times before I finally settled on a the literary character I can most identify with. My final answer would have to be the narrator of Leo Tolstoy’s Confession. In the book, Tolstoy has begun to question his life and the purpose of his existence. He brings up several points that I have pondered throughout my enlistment in the Navy. When I first joined the Navy back in 1995, I was 18 years old and ready to take on the world. In the course of the next 5 years I saw things that I wasn?t quite prepared for and did a job that I didn’t completely understand or comprehend quite yet.In my copy of the book, I have highlighted certain passages that stood out the first time I read it. In April 1857, Tolstoy witnessed his first beheading while staying in Paris and was taken aback at the grisliness of the spectacle. He wrote:

“When I saw how the head was severed from the body and heard the thud of each part as it fell into the box, I understood, not with my intellect but with my whole being, that no theories of the rationality of existence or of progress could justify such an act; I realized that even if all the people in the world from the day of creation found this to be necessary according to whatever theory, I knew that it was not necessary and was wrong. Therefore my judgements must be based on what is right and necessary and not on what people say and do; I must judge not according to progress but according to my own heart.”

My experiences in the Navy have led me to identify with Tolstoy’s feelings. While on our deployment in October 1998, my ship sat outside of Iraq ready to fire on Saddam Hussein. The entire ship was high-strung and ready to do what needed to be done, but I, and several others,couldn’t make ourselves fully accept what we were about to do. While I stopped to think about the attack, I realized that no matter what I told myself and no matter what anyone else told me, innocent people would die as soon as we shot off our missiles.

There were several things that bothered me about the situatiation, one of which was the fact that no one seemed to be taking any of it as seriously as I would think death should be taken. I work on a missile cruiser, and I understand that it is our job to make use of the missiles . However, I think that if we ever do have to carry out our mission, it should be done solemnly and regrettably, as opposed to eagerly and happily. The attitude pervading the majority of the crew was pure glee and excitement. I have to admit that I felt a bit of excitement floating through my veins, but not enough to get me to smile and laugh about killing Arabs like many other crewmembers. The experience seemed to be just another video game since we never had to see the faces of the people whose lives we were about to alter forever. Just a screen to watch, from a distance of almost 1,000 miles, and one little button to press. Believe it or not, several crewmembers actually were fighting over who got to fire the first shot, who got to press the button. My immediate supervising officer was so excited that he came across almost as a giddy schoolboy. The look in his eyes when he smiled and said ‘Are you ready for this, Petty Officer Miller?’ haunted me for several days. It was as if his entire purpose of being on the ship was for those 24 hours of anticipation. As it turned out, we came within 15 minutes of firing and then President Clinton stood us down, waiting another month before finally firing on the night of his impeachment hearings.

There is another passage in which Tolstoy writes ‘the question may be: Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything or do anything? Or to put it still differently: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?’ During those times of emotional crisis, the same thoughts ran rampant through my mind. I attempted to empathize with some of the Arabs living under Saddam’s regime. I envisioned those who were working in his armament factories and attempting to raise a family under his rule. I realized that if we did fire on the factories, there would be plenty of these men and women working there who had absolutely NO idea of their impending doom and wanted nothing more than to work and come home at the end of the day to their spouses and children. I asked myself, if I was going to die via a missile attack, what would be the last thoughts going through my head?

The third and final passage that really stood out in my mind and truly showcases how deeply Tolstoy was bothered by his existence is on the subject of religion. ‘I saw that what they took to be faith did not explain the meaning of life but only obscured it, and that they themselves professed their faith not in response to the question of life that had drawn me to faith but for some purpose that was alien to me.’ The past couple years I’ve been searching for a genuine faith that will sustain me and give me something bigger than my life to believe in. I have come to realize, however, that a person’s relationship with God is their own business and should be perpetuated in the way that they feel is best.

I hope that I have answered the question that was asked of me successfully. If I went a bit more in depth than originally planned I apologize but I wasn’t able to really find a sense of closure since I have so many questions and thoughts about the purpose of us being here on the planet. I am positive though that there are plenty of people on this planet who are asking the same questions as I am and will continue to do so until the end of existence.


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