The Man He Killed

by Thomas Hardy

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Discuss Hardy's attitude to war in his poem "The Man He Killed."

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Hardy shows a critical attitude toward war in "The Man he Killed." Rather than having his narrator talk about the man he kills in battle as evil or justify killing him as necessary for a heroic cause, Hardy's speaker simply sees the other man as person like him. He imagines the two of them in other circumstances sitting down to share a beer in an inn. He perceives his "foe" as a person who perhaps joined his own army not out of burning patriotism but because he was down on his luck and needed a job.

Hardy strips war down from propaganda about valor and heroism to simply two regular men facing off for no good reason. One lives and one dies.

By reducing warfare to ordinary people who might otherwise be friends killing each other, Hardy shows how senseless war is. His narrator calls warfare "quaint and curious," which is ironic: what he describes in killing an otherwise innocent person makes warfare appear barbaric and cruel.

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Thomas Hardy's works often grapple with the indifference our society exhibits towards human suffering. In this poem about war, he shows anguish over having to kill someone that is just a regular guy, like him:

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin! 

"But ranged as infantry,
 And staring face to face,
I shot at him and he at me,
And killed him in his place.

"I shot him dead because – 
Because he was my foe, 
Just so – my foe of course he was; 
That's clear enough; although 

"He thought he'd 'list perhaps, 
 Off-hand like – just as I – 
Was out of work – had sold his traps – 
No other reason why. 

"Yes; quaint and curious war is! 
You shoot a fellow down 
You'd treat if met where any bar is, 
Or help to half-a-crown."

 He says that if he had run into the soldier at any other time or under any other circumstances, they probably could have had a normal conversation, they probably could have shared a beer. And yet, because of the absurdity of war, two regular guys find themselves face to face, enemies, one having to kill the other. He regrets having to shoot the other man and if it were not for war, he would not have been forced into having to take another life.

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The speaker's attitude or tone in Hardy's "The Man He Killed" is one of irony.

The speaker reveals the irony involved in war.  A man one might otherwise lend a few bucks to or buy a beer for, becomes your enemy when on an opposing side during a battle. 

The irony is added to by the speaker when he points out that the opposition probably isn't fighting for anything in particular, either.  According to the speaker, no lofty ideals are involved.  The opposition probably just enlisted because of some mundane reason, like not having a job.

Yet, when facing a man who is similar to yourself during a battle, your job is to shoot this man who is just like you. 

That's the irony of war in "The Man He Killed."

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