The poem is a direct attack on the glorification of war. There was always a certain glory added to war, and martyrdom was deified. Hardy, along with other war poets who came after Hardy, like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, tried to concentrate on the negative aspects of war.
The poem is direct in its attack on the war culture. Hardy uses dramatic monologue to create a situation where he can comment on the futility of war without drawing too much attention to himself. By creating a poetic persona, he keeps his readers’ focus on the subject matter he’s dealing with. On the whole, the poem is acutely ironic. Hardy’s speaker continuously draws attention to his morally ambivalent action. However, he keeps justifying his action, which makes us wonder about it. He admits his guilt yet at the same time subverts it by blaming it on war. This brings us to the question of the limit of wars. At what point does it become too much? This also begs the question of the casualty of wars. It’s not just soldiers but hundreds of innocent people who get massacred for the cause of a few. It is these ‘few’ that Hardy targets. His poem, on one level, depicts one soldier’s struggle to accept his action of killing another soldier. On another level, it is an example of the entire mechanism of war. Or rather, its aftermath. However, it is interesting to note that ‘The Man He Killed’ is different from other war poems, where the speakers are way too distraught or marred by the spectacles. Hardy’s speaker maintains composure, and even a certain rhythm, throughout the poem. The sense of morose dejection is absent from the poem, which is so prominent in the poems of Wilfred Owen. This is perhaps because Hardy himself had not served at the army. However, his portrayal still manages to grab attention due to its quick pace and ironic wit.
The title of the poem too can be read as a quip on the subject. ‘The Man He Killed’ is a double-pronged expression which can be used for either soldier. In one reading, ‘The Man He Killed’ can be interpreted as the poet’s way of addressing the speaker of the poem and his act of killing a soldier. The Man is the soldier who has been shot dead, He, the speaker of the poem, who shoots the soldier. In another reading, it can be found that it the Man may very well mean the speaker. By killing the soldier of the enemy faction, he suffers a death too, albeit figurative.
Hardy had always been centered on the rural life of England and Victorian hypocrisy. Most of his works dealt with the problems of rural culture and the Victorian obsession with morality, purity and other social constraints, hence, hardy became an extremely controversial writer. In this poem too, Hardy keeps up his reputation by attacking the Victorian world for glorifying war culture and making war seem heroic.