Count the Dead


In the winter of 1970, the New York radio station WBAI hosted a four-day reading of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865 novel, War and Peace. More than 100 celebrities, including Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman, and William F. Buckley, took turns stumbling over names like Nikolushka and Ilyinichna with the hope of promoting non-violence. Disgusted by the rising death count in Vietnam, activists saw Tolstoy—a depressive, vegetarian pacifist—as a source of inspiration. Tolstoy made giddy, gun-hungry heroism seem pathetic. When he joined the Russian army in 1851, he was forthright about his inability to get in the mood. “How on earth have I ended up here?” the young soldier wrote in his journal. “I don’t know. Why? I even know less.”

As soldiers in Iraq ask themselves similar questions, WBAI celebrates the 35th anniversary of the first War and Peace reading with eighteen hours of special programming. This Tuesday, the station will air excerpts, interviews, and new commentaries by Cindy Sheehan, Arianna Huffington, Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as members of the Tolstoy family. The producers of the 1970 broadcast once joked that their next project would be a marathon-reading of the bible (“with the original cast”), but, for now, we’ll settle for Tolstoy’s clunky masterpiece. The sweeping novel, which features 580 characters, seems to require precisely this kind of mass event. As Henry James once put it, “Tolstoy is a reflector as vast as a natural lake; a monster harnessed to his great subject—all human life!”