The decision to set the book around the Napoleonic Wars adds a jolt of reality and tragedy in this often witty book. IN Chapter XXX- "the Girl left Behind," this observation is made: "I wonder is it because men are cowards at heart that they admire bravery so much, and place military valour so far beyond every other quality for reward and worship?" We will see later on that George pays for that bravery. But as far as this particular passage - along with a comment about men's emotional make up, do you think there's also a observation about the futility of war itself?
"Futility" is, as per American Heritage Dictionary,
- The quality of having no useful result; uselessness.
- Lack of importance or purpose; frivolousness.
Nothing I see in the quote above reflects on the nature of war, therefore nothing reflects on the uselessness or frivolousness of war--as these relate to the nature of war. In order to find a reference to the chararter of war in the quote, one must seriously read between the lines.
It is important to remember that Thackeray predates the critical theory that meaning in literature rests with each individual reader's impressions. It seems to me that,
(1) the quotation is not making an assertion about men's character but asking a question and revealing a mode of thought about men's character for the reader to mull over and draw a conclusion from ("I wonder ... cowards ..."), and
(2) the purport of the quotation is to draw an ironic comparison between the value of physical/military valor and the valor of other higher values and tacitly ask which one is more valuable. It may be that if one gets lost in "men's emotions" and the "futility of war," one overlooks the actual and universal point: which values are most valuable.
I think it might be also considered the inevitability of war. There will always be wars, and people will always fight and die in them. In a sense it is courage, but it can also be bowing to the inevitable. You hope you won’t die, but you know you might. You can’t go on if you really think about it enough to expect it.
I agree that the quote you have selected can be used to support the view that war is futile. In addition, I do think that it is possible to view the novel as a whole as an indirect attack on war and how stupid war is. It is the ability of Thackeray to place the action of his novels against a wider political and social backdrop that makes him, rightfully, so famous as a Victorian novelist, and distinguishes him from other novelists such as Austen, who is famed for her very narrow social setting.
I can see how this quotation might be interpreted as a reflection on the futility of war. Here's how: when wars are fought, there are usually winners and losers. The losers, motivated by a desire to demonstrate their own bravery and valor, often start another war with the hope of being the victors. (This happened in Germany after Germany's defeat in World War I.) No matter who wins the second war, the process often tends to be repeated. Thus, wars rarely ever settle anything for good; loss in a war is often a spur to start a new war, partly for the reasons suggested in the quotation.
you can't ignore the symbolism of having George die from a bullet shot through his heart. it's a little heavy handed but who am I to pick a fight with a literary master?