It's not everyday you read an anti-war poem that takes place in a bar. But Thomas Hardy isn't an everyday kind of poet. And the Boer War wasn't your everyday war either.
Way back in the late 1800s, after mastering the novel like nobody's business, Hardy thought he'd give poetry the old college try. In 1898, he published his first volume of poems, and not long after that, the Boer Wars broke out in South Africa. What do these two things have to do with each other?
Well, Hardy did not like what he saw, and thought poetry might help him air his dovish beef with the world. And that's why, more than a century later, we're sitting here reading his scathing poetic critique of war—"The Man He Killed."
See, the Boer Wars were not your mama's wars. They were incredibly violent, and the Brits committed more than their share of atrocities, including rounding up the Boers (South African farmers) in concentration camps, where many perished. Almost 100,000 lives were lost in total, and while the war had widespread support in Great Britain, it didn't exactly boost their rep elsewhere.
To Hardy, this was all a little much. So he penned "The Man He Killed" to reveal the war for what he thought it really was—a messy, seemingly pointless conflict between groups who shouldn't really be at odds in the first place. The poem is piercing in its irony, haunting in its imagery, and more than a little depressing in general. And we can't help but wonder what Hardy would have made of World War I, which made the Boer Wars look like a bar fight.
We'll spare you the clichés. We bet you've heard 'em all before (war is Hell, dulce et decorum est… you know the drill).
Okay, toss all those out the window. Some are true, some are sort of true, and some are just ridiculous. At the end of the day, if you want to say anything real about war, you need to get personal. Because above everything else, war is personal.
That's just what Hardy's after here. By zeroing in on one soldier's story, he forces us to confront the fact that in war, one man has to look another man in the face and kill that man. That's what's at stake here, and for Hardy that's what really matters.
To be fair, that may sound very obvious to you. But it's an easy fact to forget this day in age, when we don't always have to look each other in the face. Wars are often fought in far off places, and with new technology like drones, satellites, and whatever else they've got cooking, it's often hard to remember that war always has and always will have a human cost. Men and women die at the hands of other men and women. Somewhere, someone made a choice that made that happen.