Tolstoy explains how the conventional rules of war and of history-writing are insufficient to fully convey the realities of the 1812 conflict.
Tolstoy argues that the strength of an army rests in its spirit rather than its numbers.
As the French retreat, Russian partisans attack them. Captain Denisov is with one such group of partisans. He wants to attack a French transport, but cannot determine how many men are guarding it.
Denisov’s group takes a French drummer boy prisoner. Denisov runs into Pyotr Rostov, who is nearby with his regiment.
Denisov sends Tikhon, a peasant partisan, to capture a French soldier so they can find out how many guards are protecting the transport. The French see Tikhon and begin shooting at him.
Tikhon manages to escape the French and to return to Denisov’s camp. Although he failed to bring a prisoner back, he discovered that the French troops surrounding the transport are in poor health.
Pyotr Rostov’s general has forbidden him from participating in Denisov’s attack because of his reckless conduct in an earlier battle. However, Pyotr decides to ignore the order. He intercedes to make sure the French drummer boy who has been taken prisoner is treated especially well.
Dolokhov arrives to assist with the attack on the transport. He openly mocks Denisov and Pyotr. Nevertheless, Pyotr insists on accompanying Dolokhov to sneak into the French camp to do reconnaissance.
Dolokhov and Pyotr enter the French camp by pretending to be officers. Speaking in excellent French, they question the officers about the state of their company. The officers seem suspicious, and Pyotr is terrified. Nevertheless, Dolokhov gets information from them and even gets them to give him some horses.
Pyotr stays up the night before the attack, talking with Cossacks and watching the beautiful clouds.
Pyotr behaves recklessly in the attack and is shot in the head. Denisov is devastated, although Dolokhov does not seem to care. The partisans rescue some Russian prisoners, including Pierre.
The French soldiers have forced Pierre and the other prisoners to march with them as they retreat. Pierre experiences terrible suffering and realizes that happiness lies in having one’s basic needs fulfilled – no more, no less. Platon Karataev grows very sick.
Platon tells Pierre an anecdote about how death is part of God’s forgiveness.
Platon allows the soldiers to shoot him since he can no longer keep up with the march. Pierre guiltily avoids being with Platon at his death because the man’s illness makes him uncomfortable.
Pierre dreams about his old geography teacher, who lectures him about the meaning of Platon’s death. He wakes up when Denisov’s men rescue the prisoners.
The French soldiers are starving and desperate, and continue to retreat as fast as they can.
Tolstoy compares the Russian pursuit of the retreating French to a game of blindman’s bluff.
Tolstoy criticizes historians who portray Napoleon’s retreat as glorious.
Although the Russians won the war, they suffered massive losses because of their relentless pursuit of Napoleon’s retreating troops.
For the first time, we see Pyotr Rostov in military action, and the result is devastatingly tragic. It is useful to compare Pyotr’s experience of war with those of the characters who have gone before him: Nikolai Rostov, Prince Andrei, and Pierre. Unlike the other three men, Pyotr is never really disillusioned about the violence of war. He participates in battles, but he experiences them like the child he is. For him, armed conflict is full of excitement, and he does not comprehend the violence that surrounds him. For the other three characters, war inspires maturity.
Why, then, is Pyotr different? There are, after all, some signs that he changes over time. He is terrified when he infiltrates the French encampment with Dolokhov. Moreover, war inspires empathy in him for the imprisoned French drummer boy (although Tolstoy frames this as a kind of regression – Pyotr identifies with the drummer boy because he is a child himself). The reason for his relative stasis may be his status as a tragic symbol. He is less a fully-fledged character than he is a final manifestation of war’s carnage. The fact that he does have compassion (as all in the Rostov family, save maybe Vera, seem to have) makes his inability to appreciate the severity of war all the more tragic. Dolokhov, too, enjoys these risks, but we know him to be a cad, a fact reinforced by his lack of concern over the boy's death.
In this section, Tolstoy continues to portray French as a language of deceit. Dolokhov uses his excellent French skills to deceive the soldiers and pass himself off as one of them. In the previous section, Hélène Bezukhov tries to discuss her plans to remarry with her friends, but she cannot find the right words to talk about it in Russian and must switch to French to get her point across.
Indiscretion is another motif in these chapters. The French reveal secrets to Dolokhov and Pyotr, and Pyotr immediately tells a Cossack “in detail, not only about his ride, but also why he had gone and why he thought it was better to risk his life than to act any old way” (1053). Indiscretion’s repeated appearances tie into the novel’s thematic exploration of gossip – indiscretion, after all, is what allows gossip to happen, even if the communications we see in this section don’t fall under the normal definition of gossip.
The theme of indiscretion also can be used to understand the military strategies that Tolstoy seems to find so foolish. The French pursuit of the Russians is certainly understandable from a human standpoint, but it nevertheless was a tactical blunder that cost more lives from an already distraught nation. Poor choices, driven by our baser emotions like revenge and hatred, the very emotions that help war to spread in the first place, are something Tolstoy both sadly disapproves of and yet seems to expect.
Tolstoy bookends this section with lengthy critiques of military strategy and conventional historiography. This structure has not been used for any other section, and it evokes the argumentative essay. Tolstoy introduces his argument – that war is never glorious, a fact overlooked by historians – and then uses the events of Denisov’s attack to illustrate his point. Just as in an essay, he concludes the section by summarizing his argument in even clearer terms, and explaining how the examples fit into it.
Finally, Pierre's growth continues in this chapter, when he begins to more fully appreciate the depths of suffering. However, these realizations do not change his way of thinking, but instead merely force it to a further insight: all one requires is his basic needs fulfilled. It is a physical expression of the spiritual simplicity he has learned in his captivity.