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
Arms and the Man is one of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pleasant” plays, one of a set of plays that, according to Shaw, deal “less with the crimes of society, and more with its romantic follies.” In the case of Arms, the romantic folly is the glorification of warfare. There is the romantic vision of a cavalry charge:
CATHERINE (with surging enthusiasm). You can't guess how
splendid it is. A cavalry charge--think of that! He [Sergius] defied our
Russian commanders--acted without orders--led a charge on his
own responsibility--headed it himself--was the first man to
sweep through their guns. Can't you see it, Raina; our gallant
splendid Bulgarians with their swords and eyes flashing,
thundering down like an avalanche and scattering the wretched
Servian dandies like chaff.
And then there is the reality:
MAN [Bluntschli]. You never saw a cavalry charge, did you?
RAINA. How could I?
MAN. Ah, perhaps not--of course. Well, it's a funny sight. It's
like slinging a handful of peas against a window pane: first one
comes; then two or three close behind him; and then all the rest
in a lump.
RAINA (her eyes dilating as she raises her clasped hands
ecstatically). Yes, first One!--the bravest of the brave!
MAN (prosaically). Hm! you should see the poor devil pulling at
RAINA. Why should he pull at his horse?
MAN (impatient of so stupid a question). It's running away with
him, of course: do you suppose the fellow wants to get there
before the others and be killed?
Bluntschli, the Swiss professional soldier who has seen it all, is contrasted with Sergius, the romantic amateur who carried out the cavalry charge “like an operatic tenor.” But Sergius does change during the course of the play, and, under the influence of Bluntschli, has learned the truth about soldiering quoted at the top of the page.
“Soldiering . . . is the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong.”
This statement is not just true about soldiering. Muggers are cowards; using force to wrest pocketbooks from little old ladies is the act of a coward. Indeed, I believe we can categorize all weapons-carrying criminals as cowards. Schoolyard bullies are cowards (the riposte “pick on someone your own size!” points us to that fact). And what are gun-*or knife-toting hoods except bullies writ large.
And what then are lions and tigers and other such predatory beasts? When a lion jumps a wildebeest or a zebra (and always the weakest of the herd), it is engaged in the act of a coward, attacking mercilessly an animal that it overmatches. Would it attack that zebra if the latter had fiercer claws and sharper teeth? No. Lions are cowards—so why then do we celebrate the “lion-hearted”?
*I’ll leave the Freudian aspects of this to others.