In the next couple of paragraph’s, I am going to be explaining the themes of irony and conflict in the short story,
The Machine That Won the War, by Isaac Asimov.
The setting of The Machine That Won the War is the future of the earth, and a great war had just been won against the enemy race. Two men, Swift and Henderson, are the main characters, and are debating over who really won the war for earth. They are discussing whether or not it was the giant strategy computer known as Multivac, or the men in charge of making the maneuvers and programming the computer.
The author Isaac Asimov is using description and argument as his modes of discourse for the story. In the story, Henderson who is an excitable man, explained that the fact that Multivac was nothing more than a large machine, only capable of doing what it was programmed of doing. Henderson explained that some of Multivac’s data might have been unreliable. The great computer was capable of creating a direct battle which earth forces could be used to attack their enemies. However, with Henderson imputing faulty data, this caused some of the battle plans to be unreliable. Henderson’s internal conflict between himself losing his job and wanting to keep it made him jingle with the programming until it seemed right.
Quote from The Machine That Won the War, on page 201.
“Since the war is won, I’ll tell you what I did. I corrected the data.”
“How?” asked Swift.
“Intuition, I presume, I juggled them till they looked right. At first, I hardly dared. I changed a bit here and there to correct what were obvious impossibilities. When the sky didn’t collapse about us, I got braver. Toward the end, I scarcely cared. I just wrote out the necessary data as it was needed. I even had the Multivac Annex prepare data for me according to a private programming pattern I had devised for the purpose.”
The foreshadowing helps the reader see that someone is going to have to act upon Henderson’s faults if the war is to be won. Swift who is the calm but rational military commander, received these battle plans that Henderson had printed up out on the battle front. Swift realized that some of these plans were outrageous and had to act upon a different form of machine. Swift’s motivation for not always acting upon what was laid before him, helped alter and change the whole course of the war. Swift told Henderson that when he was faced with the difficult decisions, he didn’t use Multiva’s data all of the time.
Quote from Swift in The Machine That Won the War, on page 202.
“I’m afraid I didn’t. (Put reliance on the data.) Multivac might seem to say, Strike here, not there; do this, not that; wait, don’t act. But I could never be certain that what Multivac seemed to day, it really did say; or what it really said, it really meant. I could never be certain.”
This conflict, as you can note, helped win the war. Having this conflict also helps set a certain tone for the story and adds to the climax at the end. This conflict and making these tough decisions helps influence the climax. The climax of the story comes when Swift tells Henderson he used a coin to make all of the decisions instead of Multivac’s data. This use of “situation irony” shows us that in the worst imaginable scenario, the outcome is actually made so simply. This can be seen in the last sentence of the story. “Heads or tails, gentlemen?” said Swift.
The lesson I found in this story is things aren’t always what they appear and seem to be. And even the most respectable people make mistakes and take chances in risky situations. In conclusion, The Machine That Won the War, taught us all a valuable lesson about human responses and mistakes in the way we think and act, and contains a very humorous ironic ending that surprised me all the way through till the very end.
the book: The Machine That Won the War