Bernard Shaw’s view on War as the Coward’s Art

The title Arms and the Man is taken from the opening lines of John Dryden’s translations of Virgil’s Roman Epic poem The Aeneid. Dryden translates Virgil’s ‘Arma virumque cano’ as ‘Arms and the man I sing’ (Virgil 75). Virgil’s poem does indeed sing of several battles, and of a hero, Aeneas, who led the defeated Trojans to Rome to found there a nation. Shaw’s play, set in the early days of a new nation, Bulgaria, attempts to distinguish between true and false concepts of war, heroism, virtue, honour, and national dignity. Shaw’s concept of ‘Man’ personified by Bluntschli in the play reminds us of that fact. Bluntschli too shows the way forward to a new nation but his morality and courage are very different from Aeneas’. He is highly suspicious of idealism. For Shaw, ancient Roman concepts and standards, among others, have had their day, and Bluntschli is his modern Aeneus, ‘The Man’ of a new age (Mukherjee ix-x).

Arms and the Man is not a historical play and an accurate representation of the Bulgarian customs and manners is far from the purpose of Shaw. On the contrary, before his readers, Shaw places the facts of life — the truth about war — his purpose being to make people think and understand. It is in this way that he spreads truth, and demolishes all that is false and irrational by focusing on it the searchlight of logic and reason. As he himself once said,

What I wanted was a background. Now I am absolutely ignorant of history and geography. Sydney Webb told me of the Servo Bulgarian War, which was the very thing… so I looked up Bulgaria and Servia in an atlas, made all names and characters end in ‘off’ and the play was complete. (qtd. in Mukherjee x)

In 1885 Serbia was invaded by Bulgaria and it conquered a part of the country. However, the Bulgarians, led by Prince Alexander fought back and defeated the Serbs in the battle of Slivitzna and Tasarobrod. When Prince Alexander captured Pirot in Serbia, Austria intervened to check the Bulgarians. The play Arms and the Man begins with turning point of the war when the Serbs lost a major battle on 17 November 1885. The second and third acts took place on March 6, 1886, that was, three days after the peace treaty of Bucharest was signed (Mukherjee x).

Sociopolitical Worldview of George Bernard Shaw
1. Abstract
2. Introduction: Shaw as a reformer of social, political and theatrical conventions
3. War is the Coward’s Art
4. Socialism as a Way to Achieve Political and Economic Freedom
5. Futility of Romantic Love
6. Presentations of Upper Class Society
7. Conventional Family and Marriage as a Hindrance for Reformation
8. Life Force, the Core Relation between Man and Woman
9. Hope in Evolution, or the Replacement of Man by Superman
10. Conclusion: Shaw advertised his doctrines on the problems of modern society
11. Works Cited

The plot of Arms and the Man is built on two basic themes — war and love — leading to marriage. The word ‘Arms’ in the title suggests both weapon and arms of lovers. These themes are interwoven to show Shaw’s belief that war and romantic love are sheer stupidity. Both of these romantic illusions lead to destruction in battle field and in married life. Aim of Shaw was to bring about a correct understanding of the nature of war and love.

To understand the ideas of Shaw, at first it is necessary to understand the attitude of him on War. Shaw’s enemy is neither England nor Germany, but Capitalism and Imperialism, whether they appear in the form of German Junkerdom, the rule of an aristocratic and military race (Pitt 81) or British respectability or French patriotism. Herein the quotation stated below lies the key to all that Shaw really wrote about the war (Gupta 31).

Will you now at last believe, O stupid British, German and French patriots, what the socialists have been telling you for so many years: that your Union Jacks and tricolors and Imperial Eagles (‘where the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered’) are only toys to keep you amused, and that there are only two real flags in the world henceforth:
The red flag of Democratic Socialism and the black flag of Capitalism,
the flag of God and the flag of Mammon? (qtd. in Sengupta 91)

Shaw in this play takes up war for a satiric treatment in the same manner he attacks and satirizes other important subjects that disturb society. He condemns the outlook that looks to war as a great adventure. Raina looks to Serguis as a conventional brave hero who is leading the change “like an operatic tenor” (Shaw Arms 56). Afterwards Sergius give up his job from the army and realized that his ideals remain far away from warfare. He tells that “…war! The dream of patriots and heroes! A fraud, Bluntschli. A hollow sham, like love” (Shaw, Arms 148). It is true that this play performs the important function of destroying the myths about war. But nowhere in the play is Shaw seen to condemn war as a brutal massacre of men because in the last years of the nineteenth century, probably because The Fabian Society then did not want at all to engage itself in pronouncing any definite attitude to war (Sengupta 99).

আরো পড়ুন:  Shaw advertised his doctrines on the problems of modern society.

Shaw believed in the idea that sometimes food is more important than ammunition. The general soldiers are not heroes but they are usually anxious with mere survival. At the time of their first meeting with Raina, Bluntschli told, “I’ve no ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead; and I finished the last cake of that hours ago. … The young ones carry pistols and cartridges: the old ones grub” (Shaw Arms 52-53). The meaning of these sentences uttered by Bluntchli is very simple. An experienced soldier is quite familiar with the realities of war and so he carries food inside his leather cases and cartridge boxes instead of weapons and gun powder; but the young soldiers carry pistols and bullets, and no food, as they have romantic ideas of war. We can say that Shaw was largely right. Bluntschli is certainly not a heroic figure; he has joined as a mercenary, and for him war is a regrettable necessity, not a chance to obtain glory. Later in the play Shaw tried to satirize militarism, firstly through Sergius, when he speaks to Catherine; Sergius said “Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak. That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms” (Shaw Arms 88). This is the realization of Sergius that soldiering is “a coward’s art”. Ultimately Petkoff says: “I think soldiering has to be a trade like any other trade” (Shaw Arms 88).

Bluntschli is not brave like the classic heroes, but he is a common hero of the twentieth century. He is a person experienced in war and has no romantic ideas about it. In Arms and the Man, Shaw Portrays a heroic figure in Captain Bluntschli and contrasts him with the romantic fool, Major Sergius Saranof. These two major characters are positioned in two opposite polarities on the concept of war. Saranoff fights for success and glory, but Bluntschli joins the army out of an unmotivated impulse which he describes as an ‘incurably romantic disposition’ (Shaw Arms 162). He is a Swiss who fights for the Serbians, not because he feels for Serbia but because Serbia fell in his way. As he is an incorrigible lover of adventure, he takes part in the fight out of an incomprehensible instinct, and the same instinct makes him fly from the battlefield to save his life. S. C. Sen Gupta argues that “Judged by external standards, there is contradiction between the two things. If he is so anxious to save his life, why did he risk it?”(Gupta 113). The answer is that a ‘self-acting’ instinctive man is subject to no external law, not even the law of uniformity.

The play Arms and the Man exposes the fallacy of the romantic conceptions of war, love and marriage. The effectiveness with which Bluntschli conveys Shaw’s idea of war is remarkable. As the play opens, we are introduced to Raina, a pretty, young lady with her head full of romantic views of love and war, the result of her reading Byron and Pushkin. On the other hand, Bluntschli knows out and out the reality and futility of war and as such “save your skin” is the policy that he follows most unhesitatingly. So he can openly declare that all the soldiers are afraid to die and “Nine soldiers out of ten are born fools” (Shaw Arms 46). The conclusion is that most soldiers are born fools and they are all cowards at heart.

আরো পড়ুন:  প্রকৃতিবাদ উনবিংশ শতাব্দীর শেষের বাস্তববাদের অনুরূপ সাহিত্য আন্দোলন

The plot of the play advances and one after another truth comes in light. Raina is told the truth about Sergius’ cavalry charge. It was something foolish and rash. The greatest shock to Raina’s romantic ideals comes when Buntschli ridicules Sergius by comparing him to Don Quixote. He was waiving and moving his arms like the leader of a military band. He thought that he had done something very brave and fine; but it was a criminal act and he should be tried by a military court for the crime. “Of all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle, that man must be the very maddest. He and his regiment nearly committed suicide, only the pistol missed fire” (Shaw Arms 58). Her heroic ideals of war, thus receive a rude shock. Further, she is told that the horseman did not really want to attack; they pulled hard to the horses, but the horses ran away with them. Raina told Bluntschli that some soldiers, she knows, ‘are afraid to die’. The answer of Bluntschli is very remarkable. He says to Raina that “All of them, dear lady, all of them, believe me. It is our duty to live as long as you can” (Shaw Arms 43).

Captain Bluntschli pays importance firstly on safety in war. He has unlimited control over his own impulses, when he is focused on saving his life, he leaves no stone unturned to achieve it. For this reason, he flies from the field and comes to Raina’s bed-chamber where he is ready to use threat, force, politeness or any other means to save his life. For him, everything is fair in love and war. The words uttered by him to Sergius, “I am a professional soldier: I fight when I have to, and very glad to get out of it, when I haven’t to. You are only an amateur: You think fighting an amusement” (Shaw Arms 149). He has no romantic ideas about war. To save himself, he even uses Raina’s cloak as a shield to save himself, and at the battlefield, he even keeps food instead of ammunition to save himself. So safety comes first in war.

Bluntschli is the mouthpiece of Shaw. It is through him that the dramatist exposes the true nature of war and soldiering. Soldiers are not noble heroes as Raina considers them to be, but cowards who run away from the field to save their skins. They are ordinary creatures of flesh and blood, who suffer from hunger and fatigue. They too need food and rest, like all of us, and they fight only because they must. Shaw knows that conventional critics would attack Bluntschli, for this reason Shaw saved the play by exploring self-defending dialogue in the same preface to the Plays Pleasant;

I could explain the matter easily enough if I choose; but the result would be that the people who misunderstand the plays would misunderstand explanation ten times more. The particular exceptions taken are seldom more than symptoms of the underlying fundamental disagreement between the romantic morality of the critics and the natural morality of the plays. For example, I am quite aware that the much criticized Swiss Officer in Arms and the Man is not a conventional stage soldier. He suffers from want of food and sleep; his nerves go to pieces after three days under fire, ending in the horrors of a rout and pursuit; he has found by experience that it is more important to have a few bits of chocolate to eat in the field than cartridges for his revolver. (Shaw Arms 22-23)

The first act is remarkable from yet another point of view. It shows a perfect combination of the elements of ‘action’ and ‘discussion’. The conversation between Raina and Captain Bluntschli is extremely lively, and through the mouth of Bluntschli, Shaw gives expression to his personal anti-romantic views about war. The fugitive soldier talks of the powerful instinct of self-preservation which made him run away; but his talk is not purposeless. His intention is to persuade Raina to give him shelter and to protect him from the raids of Bulgarian soldiers. On this issue Dr. Sen Gupta makes his argument:

The action of the drama requires that Raina’s hatred of a cowardly soldier should be disarmed, her romantic notions blasted and her sympathy and pity aroused. As soon as this end has been achieved, the tired soldier drops down fast asleep. He instinctively realizes that he has become Raina’s poor dear, and there is no need for further argument. (Gupta 114)

Shaw believes that all romantic soldiers are stupid. But this belief he has demonstrated by contrasting the romantic fool Sergius with practical Bluntschli. The Major Sergius is represented as essentially a fool, and a soldier and lover only by accident. Through him Shaw has also demonstrated the folly of romantic love. His cavalry charge is shown to be a mere folly. It is not even heroic, for it is the horse which runs away with him, despite his best efforts to the contrary. His love is a sham, for he flirts with Louka and ends with marrying her, and Raina, too, loves Bluntschli behind his back and marries him.

আরো পড়ুন:  প্রতীকবাদ ছিল উনিশ শতকের শেষার্ধে কবিতা ও অন্যান্য শিল্পকর্মে শিল্প আন্দোলন

In other play Man and Superman, idea of war is not presented. Only in the third act, a philosophic discourse has been presented among Don Juan, the Devil, the Statue and Dona Ana. Don Juan Describes the evolutionary process as a purposeful act of nature, to evolve out a superman, one who is almost a god. During the process of his elaboration Don Juan says only one type of man is ever happy and universally respected. The Statue jumps to his conclusion and says that it is military man, but Juan replied against it. He says:

I do not mean the military man. When the military man approaches, the world locks up its spoons and packs of its womankind. No: I sing, not arms and the hero, but the philosophic man: he who seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world, in invention to discover the means of fulfilling that will, and in action to do that will be so-discovered means. (Shaw Man 128)

Juan makes it clear that he is not glorifying the military man, but the philosophic man. The philosophic man is one who contemplates to find out the purpose, or inner will, of life and to discover a way in which that purpose can be achieved. He cannot approve of any other sort of man. All other sorts were thorough failures. However, the influence of Bergson’s thought on Shaw is clear in passages like this. Plato’s philosopher-king, the ideal ruler we find in The Republic, too is similar to the philosophic man whom Shaw’s Don Juan describes. Further the respect he gives to contemplation is very much prevalent in some sects of Christianity. In other words, “No I sing not arms and the hero” we find the beginning lines of the Italian poet Virgil’s Aenied which starts with the line “Of arms and the hero I sing”.

It should be noted that though Shaw is a pacifist, he is opposed not so much to war as to the so-called glorification of war. He urges that people should not weave a romantic crown around it, but know its grim and ugly truth. It is not an occasion for the display of valour or any other noble qualities. War is the coward’s art.

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