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The Man He Killed

"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."

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
Our "Quaint and Curious" Custom:
A Reading of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed"

According to the speaker in Hardy's "The Man He Killed," war -- one of the human race's oldest and most favorite activities -- is "quaint and curious." Quaint here means "strange or old-fashioned," and curious here means "strange or odd." In other words, the soldier/speaker of the poem, who is a simple working- class man with limited education, has realized something that kings, emperors, generals, dictators, freedom fighters, prime ministers, tyrants and presidents have never seemed to recognize: war is a strange and old-fashioned custom. In particular, the speaker's experience on the battlefield has made him realize that humanity's age-old habit of getting complete strangers to murder one another is indeed an out-of-date custom that the world would be better off without. Hardy seems to be saying that even an uneducated man or woman should be able to see that war is a bad idea.

The habits and the language of the speaker clearly mark him as a working-class fellow. He is the sort of guy who visits the pubs and bars regularly, who wouldn't hesitate to buy a new acquaintance a "nipperkin" or half-pint of ale, and who would willingly lend "half-a-crown" or about fifty cents in modern American money to a new friend. He also mentions that he is out of work and has even sold his "traps," a slang term for his personal property such as extra clothes and the tools of his trade. In much the same way that contemporary working class Americans join the National Guard to make a little money, our speaker has joined the Army just to make a few shillings to keep from starving. And just like some American National Guardsmen have ended up fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, Hardy's speaker has ended up on the battle line, "ranged as infantry," and has shot at the enemy and has been shot back at by the enemy. He was, however, luckier than his foe; and so he "killed him in his place." Obviously the speaker is just an ordinary guy who blundered into a war and was lucky enough to survive the fighting.

The speaker may just be an ordinary guy, but he has discovered the profound contradiction of war: when a soldier kills another soldier, the survivor has almost always killed a stranger whom he has never met and who has never committed any personal injury to the survivor. In fact, the man that the speaker killed is someone who could have been the speaker's drinking buddy:

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

The dead soldier may have been the speaker's enemy or "foe," but the act of killing an enemy cannot be separated from the act of killing someone who might have become the speaker's friend. The speaker can't kill the enemy without killing a person like himself. In other words, Hardy's speaker is plenty smart enough see that killing an enemy on the battlefield is usually part patriotism and part murder.

Of course, presidents, prime ministers, kings and such folks don't seem wise enough to understand that contradiction, and so they have continued to send soldiers off to war ever since the beginning of human history. They don't seem to understand that war is a contradictory and stupid process and that it is an old-fashioned way of settling problems that we human beings ought leave behind us. Hardy's soldier/speaker understands that war is a "quaint and curious" custom, but here in 2007 our presidents and prime ministers are still sending soldiers out to die and to kill in our stupidly old-fashioned custom -- war! As a protest song of the Vietnam era used to say about the men who send other men to fight: " When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?" The leaders of today's world just don't seem smart enough to ever learn.