Arms and the Man


George Bernard Shaw

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Arms and the Man: Situational Irony 1 key example

Act 2
Explanation and Analysis—Military Etiquette:

In the following scene from Act 2, Sergius discusses the traditions and principles of warfare. This quotation serves as a prime example of situational irony, highlighting the contradictions inherent to a formalized system of rules for engaging in military conflict:

SERGIUS: I won the battle the wrong way when our worthy Russian generals were losing it the right way. That upset their plans, and wounded their self-esteem. Two of their colonels got their regiments driven back on the correct principles of scientific warfare. Two major-generals got killed strictly according to military etiquette.

Both the phrase "correct principles of scientific warfare" and the following phrase "military etiquette" imply, rather strangely, that there is something principled or dignified in an act of mass slaughter. To speak about war in such a way implies a certain level of remove from the inherent chaos and mayhem of the battlefield, as well as the terror inflicted on civilians in due course during military campaigns. Generals and captains may calculate their moves in a "scientific" manner according to commonly-held rules of engagement; but these social niceties of war produce results that couldn't possibly stray further from the principles of kind and considerate treatment.

Regardless of the rationale behind the fighting, then, war is never "proper"—it is always violent and dehumanizing.