The Red Badge of Courage

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.

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4 Responses to The Red Badge of Courage

  1. Man of Roma says:

    A very beautiful comment and review. I have the book here in my hands (The Red Badge of Courage) and I might read a few additional pages tonight (cannot judge from the 2 I have read so far).

    It was strange to hear from you that the Americans were badly equipped and trained in ww2. Italians, it is a known and a shameful fact (shame on the authorities more than on the people) were prepared for a war that was deemed to end in a few months (Mussolini’s petty calculations). Soldiers were sent to fight in the Russian winter with cardboard boots. My uncle – my mother’s brother – survived that enfère only because he found a lost truck, he could drive it and was given shelter (and human body warmth) by a Russian young widow. By the way, he then died in Tuscany on a motor way after was had ended. An American big car jumped on the opposite-direction lane of the motor-way and hit his small Fiat Topolino frontally.

    In ww1 we had ruthless Piedmontese Carabinieri who, kneeling behind the lines and carefully aiming at soldiers’ backs, shot anyone who turned round and ran in the wrong direction as you say. They could not stop the mass running though (ie in the wrong direction) when the genius of young Rommel (at that time our enemy) showed up.

    But then we reacted and won the war.

    Wars are a slaughterhouse and those who have the chance to come back are often spaced out.

    I’m getting more curious about the book now, even tho Cheri’s advice was surely enough.

  2. lichanos says:

    …kneeling behind the lines and carefully aiming at soldiers’ backs, shot anyone who turned round and ran…

    Not a part of military practice that is discussed much in public, but more common the more brutal and un-democratic the army. I believe that such practices were not part of US history in WWII (probably were in WWI) but I have not researched it.

    For some antidote material to The Greatest Generation mythology so popular in the USA today, read Paul Fussell’s The Boy’s Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 – he was there, and he discusses these issues. (Fussell also wrote a fabulous work of literary criticism on war, The Great War and Modern Memory.) For a very different treatment, read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five and his collected essays and letters on his time in the infantry.

    For the Pacific Theatre, Norman Mailer gives an unvarnished view in The Naked and the Dead, although I don’t recall him making points about training and preparation specifically.

    While waiting for a meeting in a cafe, I happened to read in a magazine an excerpt from the memoirs of Victor Brombert, a prominent literary critic from Princeton, well known for his work on Flaubert and Stendhal. He was from a bourgeois Jewish family that had the sense to leave France in time, and he spent his adolescence in the USA. He joined the army and found himself on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.He said that while he was enduring a horrific barrage of artillery, he promised himself that if he survived, he would never complain about anything ever again. The closest he ever came to praying.

    Appropos of those Piedmontese sharpshooters, he recalled his time in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge (itself the result of bad American generalship, many would say), freezing and terrified. He heard the commander (General McAuliffe, who replied to a demand for surrender with the word, “NUTS!”) shouting to the men, “I will shoot any bastard who turns and runs!”

    I quote from memory here. The General’s use of profanity is in doubt according to this Wiki text:

    According to an article in the Daily Mail the reply was not “Nuts” but a four letter expletive that was changed for propaganda purposes for domestic consumption. But that was not the case, according to Vincent Vicari, McAuliffe’s personal aide who was there at the time. As quoted by Richard Pyle of the Associated Press December 12, 2004, Vicari said, “General Mac was the only general I ever knew who did not use profane language. ‘Nuts’ was part of his normal vocabulary.”

  3. Man of Roma says:

    ‘The Greatest Generation mythology’, I liked that.

    Well, to a boomer 68er like me, this nationalistic euphoria (the American century thing?)… even though in the case of a superpower finding herself in a changing world, things are complex I mean.

    I made friends with a few bloggers – 2 are in my blogroll – very pro-Reagan-Bush-McCain. We assisted together to the victory of Obama .. (we had been fighting quite a lot on many things but also had good reasoning, laughing on topics). I was kind of sorry for them when Obama won. They were really down. I mean we must accept the existence of ‘the other’ also inpolitics, often a religion. Not that this intercourse made me flinch of a millimetre from my convictions ah ah but it gave me much in terms of a …. wider human vision – dialectics is not vain onanism, one by discussion really gets a better knowledge. You probably have fun in the same way with your dear Marxists anarchists or wth they are.

    I have read ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969)!! How could I not!! In 1969-70 it was one of the TEXTS since my 68 was all stars and stripes. I was sharing this small apt in Trastevere with this sensual intellectual from SF who taught me many things (much older and cultured than me) and surrounded by this incredible bunch of spaced out US expatriates – Vietnam vets, gays, loser artists, I’m repeating myself – I too among them. I found it to be one of the best novels I had read. Btw these people were mainly from Calif but there were persons from Ohio, Kansas, I much appreciated the difference.

    Now that you remind me of great Kurt, I feel the urge to reread that one and read the rest (his collected essays and letters etc. might be good idea, I often prefer notes to books) His pungent mind is of a kind … and there is the Proustian Recherche factor too lol.

    In ww1 Italy was in a difficult situation. The Piedmontese tough mountain people (extremely intelligent & extremely obtuse) didn’t understand the South at all (or Rome). They saw them as aliens and sub-humans.

    Piedmont – like the Serbians in Yugoslavia – has dominated the country possibly until fascism. In 1946 their power fell to dust since Republicans won the elections and the Crown was abolished. I’m digressing. They sent these South peasants (the same who were figthing in the American underworld, so no pansy people) who didn’t though know what the hell was going on, they were illiterate who still thought the Naples king was ruling them. When they understood – illiterate but quick – there were to die for people equally alien, for a country they didn’t love at all, they tried to run away etc. this is why Carabinieri were put to stop them. Carabinieri are as tough as marines, a bit more stupid, but with tremendous skills for territory checking since they in-between soldiers and cops.

    As for ww2, from what I heard from adults, Americans soldiers were much loved when they came – the British and the Germans never loved – but the US generals were not considered intelligent since – – this is what I have heard by uncles etc. – they tended to bomb ALL of an area before landing troops.
    But Italians, they think they are the most intelligent, especially the more u go to the South. As I said somewhere, everybody everywhere thinks they are gods, and it is just silly blindness.

    I am waiting to read the pagan stuff in Crane.

  4. lichanos says:

    …they tended to bomb ALL of an area before landing troops.

    There is quite a controversial history to the American use of air power in WWII. Of course, the firebombing of Dresden and the pulverization of German cities are the final result of that particular intellectual fad. The idea was that air power could be used surgically to fight and win wars ‘cleanly.’ Obviously, the technology was overrated.

    …a few bloggers…very pro-Reagan-Bush-McCain.

    I find it difficult to locate ‘conservatives’ with whom I can discuss anything rationally. I would like to. You are less close to their particular ideologies, so they don’t ‘push your buttons’ perhaps. The Marxists over at Troutsky – I kinda like them, but I like to tweak them for their dogmatism.

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