Mother Courage is discovered waiting outside the captain's tent, intending to complain about the ransacking of her cart. His clerk advises her not to bother complaining.
A young soldier, led by an old soldier, enters--aggressive, swearing, and furiously attempting to make his own complaint. He complains that the captain himself has kept the prize money which he won by swimming the river.
Mother Courage sings to him the "Song of the Great Capitulation." It details the way she, when she was young, had high ideals and aspirations but now, like everyone does, has succumbed to marching in step with the band--a metaphor for willingly participating in the war.
After she has finished the song, Mother Courage advises the young soldier to stick out the wait and complain, but only if his anger is "big enough" to be able to resist such a capitulation. The young soldier shouts, "lick my arse!" and exits.
The clerk pops his head back out of the captain's tent and tells Mother Courage that the captain is now ready to hear her complaint. She tells him she no longer wants to complain.
When the young soldier is led by an old soldier, we see this scene's key theme: the passing on of wisdom from the old to the young. Note the reflection of Achilles' anger against Agamemnon (from the Iliad in the young soldier's anger that the captain took the prize that justly belongs to the soldier.
That this scene is considerably shorter than some of the plot-driven scenes in this play points to the scene's function as a parable within the play. The ransacking of Mother Courage's cart is never revisited or even mentioned again. The scene mainly shows Courage capitulating by losing the will to complain. War, in short, crushes the will. "This scene," wrote Brecht, "calls for bitterness at the start and dejection at the end." Thus is the progression of Mother Courage, yet at the play's close, the song's lyrics are recalled when Mother Courage really does march literally "in step with the band" as she makes her final exit.
We might have expected her to mourn for the son she has lost as a result of the Catholic incursion, yet she is more actively concerned with the loss of her trade. And, though Brecht called the song "bitter," he went further in condemning Mother Courage's actions: "in no scene is Courage as depraved as in this one."
This depravity is not, as many interpreters have it, because Courage is advocating capitulation, but because she is blessed in this scene with a rare self-awareness: she knows that her complaining is worthless unless it has the power to result in a change. It is not that Courage should not rock the boat, but rather that there is no point in complaining unless the boat is rocked. She sees the light here, and what Brecht condemns is that she does not act upon it. Sadly, she is condemned in her resignation to the idea that at her level nothing can be done.