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Not if We Can Help It

The Ethics of the Strong.

by Barnabas
October 9, 2002

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Not if We Can Help It_Barnabas-The Ethics of the Strong.
Sergius: I will lend you my best horse.
Bluntschli: No: Damn your horse!—thank you all the same, my dear fellow. I shall fight you on foot. Horseback’s too dangerous. I don’t want to kill you if I can help it.

--Bernard Shaw, Arms and the Man, Act III
Arms and the Man is a comedy, but there are mortal stakes even in comedies. Sergius is deadly serious when he challenges Bluntschli to a duel. Bluntschli, the Swiss mercenary, sees no call for a duel but honors Sergius by accepting the challenge. He also knows that Sergius is no more than a brave civilian in uniform and no match for himself. Sergius was the weaker adversary by far, but would never acknowledge that. Bluntschli has to take his adversary’s weakness into account. If they duel with sabers on horseback he is likely to kill Sergius and he doesn’t want to do that.

He doesn’t want to do that. Later, when their quarrel is mended without a fight, Bluntschli says to Sergius, “I am a professional soldier. I fight when I have to and am very glad to get out of it when I haven’t to. You’re only an amateur: you think fighting’s an amusement.”

Bluster is the feeble weapon of the weak. Yesterday the Iraqis was blustering a great deal about how well-armed they are and how much harm they can do to their enemies. They are correct, to a degree. In extended combat losers hurt and kill people. But in the end they are still losers; the longer they fight, the greater their loss. But even if we were all to agree that “Iraq started it”—as Sergius “started it” in the play—the United States still would have the ethical obligation stated by Bluntschli. “We don’t want to kill you if we can help it.” The burden is on the inevitable winner to avoid conflict if possible, and to contain it if not: to do as little harm as possible. Otherwise the winner is perceived as a bully or a thug.

Bluntschli doesn’t want to fight Sergius, much less kill him. He fights when he has to, and is very glad to get out of it it when he hasn’t to. The United States is not hearing that reluctance, much less that level of civilization, from its political leadership right now. The President is giving a speech tonight, October 7. We’ll hear then if anything has changed. It would be wonderful if this column were moot by its appearance on Wednesday.

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