Tolstoy doesn''t subscribe to the "great man" view of history: the notion that history is the story of strong personalities that move events and shape societies. He believes that events shape themselves, caused by social and other forces; and great men take advantage of them, changing them but not creating them. As an example, he compares Napoleon and Kutuzov. Napoleon, the Great Man, thought he had created the French Revolution, but actually he had simply happened along at the right time and usurped it. Kutuzov was more modest and more effective.
Napoleon believed that he could control the course of a battle through sending orders through couriers, while Kutuzov admits that all he could do was to plan the initial disposition and then let subordinates direct the field of action. Typically, Napoleon would be frantically sending out orders throughout the course of a battle, carried by dashing young lieutenants—which were often misinterpreted or made irrelevant by changing conditions—while Kutuzov would sit quietly in his tent and often sleep through the battle. Ultimately, Napoleon chooses wrongly, opting to march on to Moscow and occupy it for five fatal weeks, when he would have been better off destroying the Russian army in a decisive battle instead his numerically superior army dissipate on a huge scale, thanks to large scale looting and pillaging, and lack of direction for his force. General Kutuzov believes time to be his best ally, and refrains from engaging the French. He moves his army out of Moscow, and the residents evacuate the city: the nobles flee to their country estates, taking their treasures with them; lesser folk flee wherever they can, taking food and supplies.
The French march into Moscow and disperse to find housing and supplies, then ultimately destroy themselves as they accidentally burn the city to the ground and then abandon it in late Fall, then limp back toward the French border in the teeth of a Russian Winter. They are all but destroyed by a final Cossack attack as they straggle back toward Europe. Tolstoy observes that Kutuzuv didn''t burn Moscow as a "scorched earth policy," nor did Napoleon; but after taking the city, Napoleon moved his troops in, to find housing more or less by chance in the abandoned houses: generals appropriated the grander houses, lesser men took what was left over; units were dispersed, and the chain of command dissolved into chaos. Quickly, his tightly disciplined army dissolved into a disorganized rabble; and of course, if one leaves a wooden city in the hands of strangers who naturally use fire to warm themselves, cook food, and smoke pipes, and have not learned how particular Russian families safely used their stoves and lamps (some of which they had taken with them as they fled the city), fires will break out. In the absence of an organized fire department, the fires will spread. Tolstoy concludes that the city was destroyed by chance