“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Tennyson’s classic poem Charge of the Light Brigade is actually a story of a failed military action. In short, there was an order that was misunderstood which resulted in a cavalry charge against a strong defensive position. Naturally, the Light Brigade was repelled and suffered heavy casualties. Because of the poem, the folly has gone down in history as a glorious exhibition of the honor and ability of the British cavalry. But just like military action itself, the claim that the charge was honorable is also easily shot down.
According to Tennyson, the soldiers “knew / Someone had blunder’d”. They were aware that this mission was suicidal and was impossible. The suicidal part I will not take issue with here. It may be possible to make a rational decision to give up your life for the sake of your country or to achieve a “higher goal.” (The fact that we balk at the idea of suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots may induce us to seriously question whether it actually is possible to make that choice rationally, but that is not the issue here.) Tennyson tells us that “Theirs is not to reason why, / Theirs is but to do and die”. When they enlisted in the Light Brigade, they apparently signed away their rational faculties. The very thing that makes us human is our reason, and it is their very humanity that they gave up when they agreed to relinquish their ability to think.
One will readily argue that it is necessary for soldiers to give up their will and reason to their superiors if anything is to be accomplished. If soldiers are constantly questioning their superiors and failing to obey with alacrity, they put themselves and others at risk. Although it is true that soldiers must trust each other and their superiors and act in the faith that their orders are reasonable, they cannot simply follow without exercising their reason. In an ideal case, they have good reason to believe that their orders have been made by competent superiors who are better informed than they are. Blindly following orders in this case is a rational decision. But the Light Brigade knew that something was wrong, that order could not have been made by a well-informed, rational superior: “Someone had blunder’d.” If the act is not rational, how can it be honorable? French Marshal Pierre Bosquet famously said, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.” [It is magnificant, but it is not war: it is madness.]
Yet Tennyson tells us to “Honor the charge they made”. Should we really be expected to honor madness?
Beer of the Week: Budějovický Budvar – Just as Pilsener originally meant “beer from Pilzen,” Budweiser once meant “beer from Budweis.” The people at the Budweiser Budvar Brewing Company still claim that is the only legitimate meaning of the word. As such, they have been battling with Anheuser-Busch in courts all over the globe in an attempt to secure the international trademark. This has met with limited success. Budějovický Budvar, according to their website, is not the brewery’s signature Budweiser Premium Lager, but their less alcoholic session beer, “ideal for those occasions when it is evident in advance that you will not finish with just one beer.” If that was their goal, they have not done a bad job. The beer has good hops on the nose and a decent lingering (although a little sour) finish, but is still light enough to make it go down quick. Better flavor than the A-B Budweiser, but about the same in terms of body and ability to be consumed in large quantities.
Reading of the week: Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson – Regardless of the philosophical implications of glorifying the tremendous error that resulted in the death, injury, or capture of so many men, this poem really does get the blood pumping. Although if you hear a recording of Tennyson reading it himself, it is more creepy than inspiring. (But what can you expect from a 120 year-old recording on wax?)
Question of the week: If one can rationally point out what an awful mistake the charge was, why is it still so captivating?