A whopping 74 chapters later, and Armin gets the credit he deserves. Finally.
I can’t be the only one frustrated by this tiny tactician’s utter lack of recognition. When he’s not being replaced by the more statistically popular Levi Ackerman in official franchise artwork, Armin’s either bent on putting himself down or enduring out-lash from others for his less-than-impressive combat skills (we’re talking a 2/10 here).
While many of the characters judge Armin for who he isn’t, though, the readership’s more omniscient perspective offers powerful insight into who he truly is. After all, we’ve seen Armin in action. Much like Commander Erwin Smith, he exhibits frightening collectedness in the midst of crisis, even going so far as to literally pull the trigger and end a life whilst the more combatant-skilled Jean Kirstein hesitates. His ability to all but foresee the unfolding of events and sacrifice for the bigger picture makes him a bite-sized force of terror to reckon with.
Armin is collected, intelligent, compassionate, humble, and—in Erwin’s own stamp-of-approval—“one of our greatest weapons.” It’s that same approval that sees Armin in captain-tier charge of the mission to retake Wall Maria.
So why is it that Erwin’s troops answer with hesitant silence when they’re told to follow Armin’s lead, with one veteran even calling the sudden move “another big gamble”? Why do the soldiers doubt Armin’s competence when he gives an innovative order, forcing Erwin to reinstate authority?
I think the answer stems from over-reliance on superficiality, with just a dash of biased pride.
Armin’s not the most intimidating figure, particularly standing next to his 6’2, bushy-browed counterpart. He’s a gentle, bright-eyed teenager with a boyish face that’s more suited to reading a captivating book than staring down a blood-thirsty titan. His voice cracks and strains when launched into passion-filled tirades, and—let’s face it—his titan kill-count is all but nonexistent.
If I were asked to put my life in the hands of someone like Armin Arlert, I’d have serious doubts based on nothing but his appearance alone. Like Samuel in the Old Testament, searching among the sons of Jesse for the chosen future king of Israel, I’d be tempted to overlook David in place of his taller, older, and more impressive brethren. The Bible describes David as being young, boyish, “of a fair countenance,” and a shepherd—not exactly traits you’d look for in a future king expected to lead your people through times of war (1 Samuel 16:12). Next to Saul—a much more experienced and physically imposing leader, said to be a good foot taller than the average man (1 Samuel 9:2)—David likely seemed an odd choice as successor. I can only imagine the comparison between Erwin and Armin leading to similar conclusions.
But God chose David to be king for the same reason that Erwin chooses Armin to lead the expedition—because he knows the heart of the boy he’s selected. He’s able to look beyond the superficiality and see the genius intellect, the relentless energy, the will to do the unspeakable, and perhaps even the compassion that Armin has for others.
I think, too, that Erwin—who was much like Armin in his own youth—is secretly stunned by the protégé’s refusal to grow calloused to death as Erwin has, playing it off as a part of his Commander’s persona. Mentally, Armin may even be stronger than Erwin, whose murdered father continues to haunt his relentless—increasingly obsessive—drive to discover the truth his father died for. Despite facing similar loss in the past—the suicide mission that took his grandfather’s life and the implicit deaths of his parents at the hands of the MPs—Armin refuses to let these losses define him.
Armin Arlert will never be Erwin Smith. And that’s not at all a bad thing.
Rather than allow the past to fuel his drive toward the future, Armin is able to look to the future and find the courage to live in the present. I think Erwin sees Armin as an individual having the emotional strength that he lacks, just as Armin sees Erwin as someone whose physical strength and imposing presence can never be lived up to. In a moment of awkwardness, Armin even goes so far as to end his first command with a very uncertain, “P-please…?”
I mention this because a large part of looking beyond superficiality and bias involves humility—the humility to let go of any stereotypes and dispositions that you might have about an individual based on nothing but their appearance or background. Even more important is the humility to admire and value the unique strengths of others.
I’m a bit of a skeptic who’s gradually learning to let go of superficial evaluation, but it’s a trap I still find myself falling into. That’s because people tend to be passive by nature, rather than actively engage their world; sometimes it’s just more convenient to rely on immediate assumptions about others than it is to research their realities. Pursuing such logic actually runs counter to one of the foundations of Creation, however—that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made, unique in the eyes of God, and unable to be put under easily dismissive labels.
Whether I’m interacting with a child or a peer, educated or uneducated, confident or quiet, experienced or inexperienced, eloquent or crass, I make a point to ask myself: what can I learn from this individual? What is God trying to teach me through my experiences with this person?
It’s humbling, sometimes, but very rarely unrewarding.
1 Samuel records two responses to assumptions based on David’s superficial appearance, and I think they showcase the different attitudes we can choose to assume when weighing the competency of others. One comes from Goliath, who sees David’s unassuming appearance and literally feels his pride insulted that a mere boy has been sent out to fight him (1 Samuel 17:42-44); he underestimates David, which only makes him look more foolish upon defeat. The other comes from God Himself as a gentle rebuke to Samuel (1 Samuel 16:7):
But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature… for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.
I challenge you as I challenge myself: to withhold judgement, to be studious of those around you, and to humble yourself enough to ask “what can I learn from this individual?”
Look at others as God does: from the inside out.
Despite his misleading appearance and background, David becomes a giant-slayer. I’d miss a golden opportunity for irony if I didn’t say that Armin will probably live to see a similar destiny.