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Arms and the Man


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 #BlogchatterA2Z challenge.
Tomorrow: Browning Version

Comments

  1. I really liked the way how you pointed out the futility and dangers of extreme nationalism by taking reference from Arms and the Man.
    Enjoyed the post!

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    1. Glad you liked it, Purba. Shaw's views are more relevant today in our country, I think.

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  2. This post reminded me of college days. We had both Arms and the man and Don Quixote as part of syllabus."Nationalism" is indeed an illusion. It is chasing something imaginary, chasing a concept. Unfortunately our country is now in the grip of "nationalism". https://trinalooksback.com/2020/04/01/anxiety-anger-and-alienation/

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    1. Corona has given a respite to the grip of nationalism. The moment Corona leaves us, that grip will return with a bigger bang. The plague germs don't vanish; they just lie low.

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  3. Have heard about this famous book by GB Shaw, but have not read it. It brings to the fore some vert pertinent and important points which are relevant more than ever today!

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    1. That relevance is precisely what prompted me to focus on the book.

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  4. I have heard so much about this book. I think mom owns a copy too. I will definitely try to pick it up soon. Thanks for sharing your insights on extreme nationalism. How relevant in today's times!

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    1. I had this play as one of my undergraduate texts. Your mom must have had it too, perhaps.

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  5. I haven't ever thought of patriotism being narcissistic. It's always just been a term taken for granted as the love for our nation. Adding the book to my list right away.

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    1. Shaw can subvert your thinking. Traditional heroes become fools in his plays and apparent villains turn out to heroes.

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    2. Sir, please explain the latter with example. Thank you for the blog. Good start! All the best!

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    3. By latter, do you mean Browning Version?

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    4. No, sir. I mean the villains turning out to heroes in Shaw's plays...

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    5. That's a normal Shavian strategy. He subverts conventions. Bluntschli and Sergius are just two examples. The theme of patriotism is another in this play. In other plays he subverts other themes and heroes / villains.

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  6. Wonderful article. I believe its very much needed at this time. E.V Ramasami, who is also known popularly as Periyar, also dashes about patriotism in a similiar fashion. He considers patriotism as a pride of fake nationalism and condemns it literally to keep the masses ignorent.

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    1. I am an admirer of Periyar though my knowledge of him is limited. I love people who think clearly.

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  7. In a lot of ways this reminded me of the movie 1917. Especially the end where the soldier is relieved he delivered his mission but the man in-charge tells him, quite baldly that he had only stopped a war and not the war.

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    1. Unfortunately the war never ends except in myths where evil is destroyed by the divine good. We need to strive constantly. At least awareness can be raised.

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  8. The play has much value in today's context of flexed bravado called Nationalism.
    Thanks for introducing this play Tomichan.
    https://canvaswithrainbow.com/alien/

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  9. Am yet to read this classic.
    Nice story.
    He shared the chocolates with the woman who saved his life, right?
    Running away from the war with chocolates & not being the villain- appearances are deceptive

    About Odisha Geographical Indications - Anita

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    1. She shared her chocolates with him, in fact.

      Appearances are deceptive. Shaw would readily agree with you.

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  10. Patriotism I have always held is an artificial concept. And patriotism when carried to fanatical extremes takes on the form of nationalism.

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    1. I have seen you express your views on patriotism earlier. If only more people realised the meaning of such views.

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  11. It seems interesting.Your review has influenced me to read this book soon.

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  12. Haven't read the book yet... Hopefully will read it soon... Yes, patriotism and nationalism once they go on to become illogical or for that matter fanatic it creates destruction and nothing else... Worse is when these weapons are used to just achieve personal motives!!

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  13. A part of it was in CBSE syllabus. The day I read it, I searched for the complete play to know its end. And, it completely turned the table. Though at that age, I was more interested in the love dynamics between the fugitive and the lady.

    As far as the concept of religion & nationalism, they are devised by a few to rule the masses.

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    1. I have only touched upon a fraction of the play. That was my point of interest. As you've underscored, the pointless sort of patriotism.

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  14. Kudos to you Sir for penning this blog bringing out the essence of the classic work of George Bernard Shaw who was a real genius and his thoughts and works have timeless value. Samuel Johnson had asserted - 'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel'. The extent of truth embedded in his statement can be gauged by observing the present scenario in our own country.

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    1. Thank you, Jitender ji. Dr Johnson made that statement centuries ago which means patriots were all the same always.

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  15. Enjoyed reading the post, sir. Patriotism has wrong notions all over world and that's why I don't believe in it. It has misused for such personal agendas.. this is a work of art, a classic book, read and re-read still! Thank you for refreshing.

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    1. My pleasure. I'd love to see a lot more people beginning to think seriously about the need for narrow-minded patriotism.

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  16. '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.' Point to ponder. Wars will not be fought if we start looking at things through the lens of reason. Pertinent in current times.

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    1. I'm happy you have become a regular presence here.

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    2. How can I follow your blog?

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    3. When I changed the theme of the blog to dynamic view, the follow option disappeared. I don't want to go back to the classic theme anymore. So if you give me your email, I'll add it to the mailing list in the setting and you'll receive a mail every time I post.

      Delete

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