Arms and the Man: Rising above sentiments
War is a savage human enterprise much as it has been glorified in human history. George Bernard Shaw’s play, Arms and the Man, compels us to question our notions about war and nationalist patriotism that often leads to wars.
The hero of the play, Captain Bluntschli, appears as a villain in the beginning. He is running away from a lost war. He escapes from the chasing enemy by climbing up a water pipe into the bedroom of a young woman, Raina. He threatens the defenceless woman with his gun, forces her to hide him behind the curtains, and soon reveals that he carried chocolates rather than cartridges in his cartridge box because he didn’t want to starve to death on the battlefield. He is apparently quite the antithesis of an ideal soldier. Yet he becomes the hero of the play because of his professionalism.
Patriotism is just a sentiment which doesn’t really serve any useful purpose. Shaw mocked the patriot as a narcissist who thought of his nation as great just because he was born in it. Nationalism is worse. It deludes you into thinking that your country towers far above the others in terms of culture and language and whatever else you can imagine. The nationalist is a Don Quixote at heart eager to attack imaginary monsters.
The person who is projected initially as the country’s hero in Shaw’s play, Sergius, is quixotic. He rushed into the battlefield like a Quixote. He could have been killed instantly. His fortune saved him. He also contributed to the victory indirectly in the process. Thus he became a national hero. He was motivated by personal ambition to rise higher in the military ranks. His patriotism was inextricably linked to his personal aspirations. His personal aspirations are not out of place, however, because he is brave indeed. But bravery is a romantic ideal for him.
Wars are not won by bravery alone. Rather, bravery has little place in man’s bellicose encounters. Victory in wars depends on clever strategies and their effective implementations. War is a professional affair. There is nothing romantic about it. This is what Captain Bluntschli teaches in Shaw’s play.
Human ideals should not be romanticised. Arms and the Man shows how patriotism and nationalism and wars should be looked at with clear rationality than with romantic sentiments. Sentiments tend to bring out the monsters lying dormant within us. And we commit monstrous acts. Reason opens our eyes. We see things more clearly. We see that concepts such as motherland and fatherland are not sacrosanct beyond a point. That point is called practicality. Even our love has to be practical.
Even truth has to be practical. Raina learns this soon enough. In fact, she has always been practical at heart. The dominant sentiments around her, which were romantic as usual, had subdued her practicality. She realises that goodness, valour and truth all have their limits and limitations determined by sheer practicality. Idealising these virtues will only create more problems for individuals as well as the nation.
Towards the end of the play, Bluntschli says, “My rank is the highest known in Switzerland: I’m a free citizen.” The citizen is the most important individual in the country. All the rest are notions manufactured by people for various purposes such as holding the citizens together as a nation, for easing administration, and so on. In that process, a lot of things become sanctified. Patriotism and nationalism are just two of those things. We need to clip their wings occasionally lest they fly too high for the good of the citizens. That’s an important lesson from Shaw’s Arms and the Man.
PS. This is the 1st part of the