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Actors, Journalists, Activists, Scholars and Others Continue the War and Peace Epic

StoryDecember 06, 2005
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Thirty-five years after WBAI’s 1970 War and Peace broadcast, the Pacifica Radio Archive gathered actors, activists, scholars and journalists to read sections of the epic novel. We play excerpts of readings by veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas and writer and death row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal. [includes rush transcript]

Thirty-five years after WBAI’s 1970 War and Peace broadcast, the Pacifica Radio Archive gathered actors, activists, scholars and journalists to read sections of the epic novel.

Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was one of those invited. Commonly referred to as “The First Lady of the Press,” Helen Thomas is the most senior member of the White House press corps. She has served as White House correspondent for United Press International for nearly 60 years and has covered every President since John F. Kennedy. She is now a columnist for Hearst newspapers.

President Gerald Ford once remarked, “If God created the Earth in six days, he couldn’t have rested on the seventh–he would have had to explain it Helen Thomas.”

The Pacifica Radio Archives asked the veteran journalist to read an excerpt of Leo Tolstoy’s epic work, War and Peace.

  • Helen Thomas, veteran White House correspondent reading “War and Peace” and discussing the novel.

She was not the only to read Tolstoy’s novel for Pacifica Radio. We end today with some of the voices that continue the War and Peace epic.

  • Mumia Abu Jamal and others reading “War and Peace.”

- Pacifica Radio Archives War and Peace Broadcast: 35th Anniversary

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pacifica Radio Archive asked the veteran journalist to read an excerpt of Leo Tolstoy’s epic work, War and Peace.

HELEN THOMAS: I’m Helen Thomas, a Hearst newspapers columnist, and I’m about to read excerpts from Chapter 19 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

On the Pratzen heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hands, lay Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering soft, pitiful, childish moans.

Toward evening he stopped moaning and became quite still. He did not know how long he had remained unconscious. Suddenly he again felt that he was alive, and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in the head.

“Where is it, that lofty sky I never knew till now and only now saw today?” was his first thought. “This suffering, too, I did not know before,” he thought. “No, I knew nothing, nothing, till now. But where am I?”

He listened and caught the sound of approaching horses and of voices speaking French. He opened his eyes. Above him once more there was the lofty sky, with rising clouds through which he glimpsed that blue infinity. He did not turn his head and did not see those who, judging by the sounds of hoofbeats and voices, had ridden up to him and stopped.

It was Napoleon accompanied by two aides-de-camp. Making a tour of the battlefield, Bonaparte had given final orders to strengthen the batteries firing at the Augest dam and was looking at the killed and wounded left on the field.

“Fine men!” observed Napoleon, looking at a dead Russian grenadier who lay on his stomach with his face plunged into the earth, the back of his neck blackened, and one already stiffened arm flung wide.

“The battery guns have exhausted their ammunition, Sire,” reported an adjutant who had just come from the batteries firing on Augest.

“Have some brought up from the reserve,” said Napoleon, and having gone a few steps he stopped and looked down on Prince Andrei, who lay on his back with the flagstaff that had been dropped beside him (the flag had already been taken by the French as a trophy).

“That’s a fine death!” said Napoleon gazing at Bolkonsky.

Prince Andrei realized that this was said of him, and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker of these words addressed as sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them, instantly forgot them. His head was burning; he felt that he was losing blood, and saw above him the remote, lofty, eternal heavens. He knew that it was Napoleon —-— his hero —-— but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was taking place between his soul and that lofty, infinite sky with the clouds sailing over it. At that moment it meant absolutely nothing to him who might be standing over him or what might be said of him; he was only glad there were people there, only wished they would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he understood it differently. He made a supreme effort to stir and utter a sound. He feebly moved his leg and produced a faint, sickly moan that roused his own pity.

“Ah, he is alive!” said Napoleon. “Pick up this young man up and carry him to the dressing station.”

Having said this, Napoleon rode on to meet Marshal Lannes, who, hat in hand and smiling, rode up to the Emperor to congratulate him on his victory.

Prince Andrei remembered nothing more: he lost consciousness from the terrible pain of being lifted onto the stretcher, the jolting while being moved, and the probing of his wound at the dressing station. He regained consciousness only toward the end of the day, when, with the other wounded and captured Russian officers, he was moved to a hospital. During this transfer he felt a little stronger and was able to look about him and even to speak.

The first words he heard on regaining consciousness were those of a French convoy officer hurriedly saying:

“We must halt here: the Emperor will be coming this way, and it will please him to see these gentlemen prisoners.”

“There are so many prisoners today, almost a whole Russian army, that he’s probably sick of looking at them,” said another officer.

“Well, anyhow, this one, they say, is the commander of all the Emperor Aleksandr’s Guards,” said the first officer, pointing to a wounded Russian officer in the white uniform of the Horse Guards.

Bolkonsky recognized Prince Repnin whom he had met in Petersburg society. Beside him stood a youth of nineteen, also a wounded officer of the Horse Guards.

Bonaparte rode up at a gallop and reined in his horse.

“Who is the senior officer here?” he asked, on seeing the prisoners.

They named the colonel, Prince Repnin.

“You are the commander of Emperor Aleksandr’s regiment of Horse Guards?” asked Napoleon.

“I commanded a squadron,” replied Repnin.

“Your regiment performed its duty honorably,” said Napoleon.

“The praise of a great commander is a soldier’s highest reward,” replied Repnin.

“I bestow it with pleasure,” said Napoleon. “Who is that young man beside you?”

Prince Repnin named Lieutenant Sukhtelen.

Looking at him Napoleon smiled and said: “He is rather young to come and meddle with us.”

“Youth is no impediment to courage,” murmured the young man, his voice breaking.

“A fine answer,” said Napoleon. “Young man, you will go far.”

Prince Andrei, who had also been brought forward to complete the show of prisoners for the emperor, could not fail to attract his notice. Napoleon apparently remembered seeing him on the field, and addressed him with the same epithet, “young man,” with which his first sight of Bolkonsky was associated in his memory.

“And you, young man?” he said. “Well, how are you feeling, mon brave?”

Although five minutes before Prince Andrei had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed on Napoleon he was silent….So trivial at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so petty did his hero himself, with his paltry vanity and joy in victory, appear, compared with that lofty, equitable, benevolent sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.

Indeed, everything seemed to him so futile and insignificant in comparison with that solemn and sublime train of thought which weakness, loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death had induced in him. Looking into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life, which no one could understand, and of the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no living person could understand and explain.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, reading an excerpt of Leo Tolstoy’s classic work, War and Peace. After the reading, Pacifica reporter Mitch Jeserich interviewed Helen Thomas. He began by asking her why War and Peace was one of her favorite books.

HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think it’s — it covers our lifetime. Since I’ve been reporting, we’ve been through many wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, now war with Iraq, and God knows, so many other little skirmishes; and I just think, it’s so profound that it’s so much a part of our lives. I hope from now on we’ll see peace.

MITCH JESERICH: Now, you read Chapter 19 of Book One. Why did you choose that?

HELEN THOMAS: I was profoundly moved by that chapter, because it really seemed to personify the whole book in terms of what it was all about. In the end, what is significant? What is important? Family, the blue skies, eternity, and not the noble — not Napoleon and so forth, the leaders who make and break our lives.

MITCH JESERICH: You speak of your experience of covering government, covering the White House for several decades now. Throughout what you’ve seen, throughout your career, how does something like War and Peace relate to your experience in covering the White House?

HELEN THOMAS: You always feel and hope that whoever lives in the White House is a man of peace and will work in every possible way to the last resort for peace. Because war is horrible. There are no winners, really, in the end. So much pain and so forth. And so unnecessary. There are peaceful solutions to most problems. If we’re attacked, of course, we would have to go to war. But I never want my country to provoke a war, that is, against a country that did nothing to us; and I feel that’s what’s happened in Iraq.

MITCH JESERICH: And is that the idea behind the title, even of the book War and Peace, a struggle between war and peace?

HELEN THOMAS: I think it so exemplifies even wars today. War is war, no matter what era. No matter what century.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran White House correspondent, Helen Thomas. She was not the only one to read Tolstoy’s novel for Pacifica Radio. We end today with some of the voices that continue the War and Peace epic.

ROBERT FISK : This is Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent, of the London Independent, reading War and Peace, in this edition from page 971 to 980.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Hi, I’m Maria Hinojosa. I’m reading pages 1,285 to 1,288 from War and Peace.

MIKE FARRELL: This is Mike Farrell. I’m reading Chapter 14, pages 1326, 27, and 28.

ED ASNER: This is Ed Asner, and I’m reading War and Peace from pages 1338 to 1343.

MUMIA ABU JAMAL: This is War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. This is Mumia Abu Jamal.

From that time up to the end of the campaign, all Kutuzov’s activity was limited to trying by the exercise of authority, by guile and by entreaties, to hold his army back from useless attacks, maneuvers, and skirmishes with the perishing enemy. Dohturov marched to Maley Yaroslavets, but Kutuzov lingered with the main army, and gave orders for the clearing of the Kaluga, retreat beyond which seemed to Kutuzov quite possible.

Everywhere Kutuzov retreated, but the enemy, without waiting for him to retire, fled back in the opposite direction.

Napoleon’s historians describe to us his skilful manœuvres at Tarutino, and at Maley Yaroslavets, and discuss what would have happened if Napoleon had succeeded in making his way to the wealthy provinces of the south.

But to say nothing of the fact that nothing hindered Napoleon from marching into those southern provinces (since the Russian army left the road open), the historians forget that nothing could have saved Napoleon’s army, because it carried within itself at that time the inevitable germs of ruin. Why should that army, which found abundant provisions in Moscow and could not keep them, but trampled them underfoot, that army which could not store supplies on entering Smolensk, but plundered at random, why should that army have mended its ways in the Kaluga province, where the inhabitants were of the same Russian race as in Moscow, and where fire had the same aptitude for destroying whatever they set fire to.

The army could not have recovered itself any way. From the battle of Borodino and the sacking of Moscow it bore within itself, as it were, the chemical elements of dissolution.

The men of what had been an army fled with their leaders, not knowing whither they went, Napoleon and every soldier with him filled with one desire: to make his own escape as quickly as might be from the hopeless position of which all were dimly aware.

At the council in Maley Yaroslavets, when the French generals, affecting to be deliberating —

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu Jamal, Robert Fisk, Maria Hinojosa, Helen Thomas, Ed Asner, and many more, reading from Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. The Pacifica Radio Archive is spending the day bringing you excerpts, past and present, as we honor WBAI in New York, 35 years ago, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of War and Peace. If you’d like to hear the old readings and the new, if you’d like to hear the two-hour documentary, produced by Brian DeShazer and Christopher Sprinkle and Mark Torres and the Pacifica Radio Archive, you can go to their website at The power of community media.

Again today, the 35th anniversary of the first marathon radio broadcast in history. WBAI spending four-and-a-half days, ending today, December 6, but it was in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. The marathon reading interrupted only by the nightly war report, bringing you the reports from Vietnam. Today, we remember this, in the midst of the war in Iraq.

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