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Why did Rawlins stop Tripp from fighting Sargent Mulcahy when the Sargent pushed him?

In the scene where Sargent Mulcahy becomes tough on Thomas to make him into a proper soldier, Tripp mocks Thomas by calling him a 'nigger who failed to duck' and at the command of Shaw, Mulcahy pushes Tripp backwards to reprimand him and before Tripp can do anything, Rawlins stops him. It seems only fair that he did so because one cannot touch a senior officer, especially if the latter is a white man and the former is a black man but when Mulcahy was training them to march, he started abusing each of them and Tripp was one of the soldiers whom Mulcahy did verbally abuse. Tripp should have claimed his revenge by being allowed to physically fight Mulcahy when the Sargent pushed him


While I would have liked to have seen Mulcahy get a little beat-down or at least put in his place somewhat, I think a lot of what's going on in the film is the tension between military discipline and the racial division. One of the things the movie does really well, I think, is giving us a portrait of this stuff without commentary. For example: the unbelievably powerful scene where Trip gets lashings for desertion. In military discipline, this is standard, but it's entirely different with Trip's scars and history and the history of the men watching. It's a moment where Shaw realizes, "Mmm...maybe this isn't right." And he sees beyond his standard assumptions.

Within the men of the 54th, we see various ways that they handle the situation. Trip is all lip and rebellion. He's pure anger. Rawlins wants to blend in and become one people. But he's often at odds with himself and the others. Rawlins gets called an Uncle Tom by Trip because Rawlins is trying to get above all this crap and make peace and that's perceived as capitulation, sucking up, or weak by Trip.

So, the scene where Rawlins restrains Trip? That's part of that complexity.

On a practical level, Rawlins also knows that Trip will bring down military discipline and sow more seeds of discord if he fights Mulcahy. If Rawlins didn't stop Trip, it would have escalated further. After all, the order came from Shaw. They can't have division from bottom to top: the whole unit would rip apart.