Stephen Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage: only read of them, and conversed with his civil war veteran brother about Chancelorville. Nevertheless, his depiction of the atmosphere of battle convinced many that he had seen it first hand, and it won high praise from veterans. He is writer of marvelous descriptions, and uses poetic metaphor with a wonderful economy. This gives his epic of the Civil War an overarching sense of irony, deflating the romantic pretensions of lawful battlefield slaughter; pretensions which yet lived on, kept alive by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in America, and countless others in Europe. WWI pretty much finished off that point of view.
The story proceeds on two levels: a realistic tale of a few days in the life of a civil war soldier, filled with telling minor details and marked by a singular absence of glory; and the inner tale of the psychological evolution of Henry Fleming, usually noted simply as “the youth.” He grapples with the central question that faces him, and all soldiers, and all who contemplate their work: How the hell do they do it?
A friend told me once that he learned that the most difficult thing to train new soldiers to do is to run the right way. To run towards danger. The Red Badge does not deal with the training that Henry got, perfunctory, no doubt, but in a modern army, there is tremendous effort placed on molding the soldiers into a group so that they do not think of their paltry survival as separate from the the unit. War is not a place for individualistic heroism these days. That went out with the hoplite revolution of ancient Greece…
After Henry flees the front lines, he engages in a long series of inner divigations to prove to himself that he acted sensibly, if not heroically, and he manages to screw his courage up to rejoin the unit, rather than to desert. He thinks
…furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of the gods and doomed to greatness?
The pagan theme is sounded frequently, an ironic note of comparison with the myths, legends, and literature of classical antiquity. When Henry rejoins the battle and falls into a manic frenzy of shooting, continuing alone, long after all others have ceased, unaware that the skirmish is over, Crane says, “He had fought like a pagan defending his religion.” And note the further irony in the quotation above…doomed to greatness! He echoes the common sentiments of new recruits, recounted in a passage I recall from a WWII memoir that went something like this:
At first, everyone believes he is too smart, too good looking, too strong, or too loved by his mother to bit hit. Then, after a while, that illusion goes, and he realizes he could in fact be killed or wounded. Finally, everyone realizes that it’s only a matter of time before they leave action, dead or badly hit.
A writer on the Holocaust remarked once that there were no survivors in the death camps, only those who happened to be alive when the war ended. For the infantry in total war, it is the same. The casualty rates in WWII were mind boggling for our troops, hastily trained, hastily equipped, not always well led, and facing a hardened fighting machine on the defensive in the Pacific and Europe. Those who went first, died pretty much. Some of them had a copy of Crane’s book, no doubt.
Crane did not finish with Henry Fleming in this novel. A short story, The Veteran, revisits him, now as The Old Man, recounting his experiences to avid listeners. He does not hide the fact that at first, he ran. His grandson is very perturbed. In the climax of the story, the youth is tested yet again, or tests himself.