by W.D. Ehrhart
Lately I have been revisiting one of my favorite writers, Stephen Crane. Most famous for his novel of the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage, his collected writing—fiction, poetry, and journalism published by the University of Virginia Press—runs to ten full volumes. So enamored of his poetry was I that I still have a slim volume of his poems I “removed” (stole would be more accurate) from the Pennridge High School library back in 1965 or 1966. (In my defense, the town I grew up in didn’t even have a bookstore, and I wanted to possess those poems.)
The best of his short stories and novellas are enduring masterpieces: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, The Monster, “The Blue Hotel,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” And “The Open Boat” is among the greatest short stories ever written. In the years since my own encounter with war, however, I came to believe that The Red Badge of Courage is the least of his accomplishments, the least interesting, the most sadly conventional.
In his first battle, the book’s young protagonist succumbs to fear and runs from the fight as far and as fast as he can go. But after assorted encounters in rear areas with dead men, wounded men, and a dying friend, Henry rejoins his regiment and fights bravely “with his soiled and disorderly dress, his red and inflamed features surmounted by the dingy rag with its spot of blood, his wildly swinging rifle and banging accouterments[.]” And after the battle, “he felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood…. He was a man.”
The message of the story, in fact, is about as conventional as it gets. Back in the old days, before dashing Marines dueled flaming dragons in electronically generated television recruiting pitches, the poster that caught my eye in front of the U.S. Post Office in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, was a nearly life-sized Marine sergeant in Dress Blues with a caption that said, “THE MARINE CORPS BUILDS MEN.”
That’s what I wanted to be! So I signed up, only to discover that being a man wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, that men who are horribly mangled in battle really do cry for their mothers, that war is neither ennobling nor uplifting but instead mostly degrading, diminishing, and dehumanizing.
Crane, to his credit, seems to have come to the same conclusion. At the time he wrote his Civil War novel, he had never heard a shot fired in anger. But after experiencing a real war in Greece—including not just the battlefield fighting, but the suffering and terror of civilians—he wrote a very different story called “Death and the Child.”
In this story, the young soldier also runs away from battle, though he receives his “red badge of courage” in the form of a mortal bullet wound, and with his dying thoughts, reflects upon the ordinary soldiers who make up all armies, and “who, throughout the world, hold potentates on their thrones, make statesmen illustrious, provide generals with lasting victories, all with ignorance, indifference, or half-witted hatred, moving the world with the strength of their arms and getting their heads knocked together in the name of God, the king, or the Stock Exchange—immortal, dreaming, hopeless asses who surrender their reason to the care of a shining puppet, and persuade some toy to carry their lives in his purse.”
It is perhaps the most bitter sentence Crane ever penned, and every word of it is true. One is reminded of the question: what is a bayonet? Answer: a tool with a worker at either end.
Or consider Philip Freneau’s poem “The American Soldier”:
Deep in a vale, a stranger now to arms,
Too poor to shine in courts, too proud to beg,
He, who once warred on Saratoga’s plains,
Sits musing o’er his scars, and wooden leg.
Remembering still the toil of former days,
To other hands he sees his earnings paid;—
They share the due reward—he feeds on praise.
Lost in the abyss of want, misfortune’s shade.
Far, far from domes where splendid tapers glare,
‘Tis his from dear bought peace no wealth to win,
Removed alike from courtly cringing ‘squires,
The great-man’s Levee, and the proud man’s grin.
Sold are those arms which once on Britons blazed,
When, flushed with conquest, to the charge they came;
That power repelled, and Freedom’s fabrick raised,
She leaves her soldier—famine and a name!
This was written about the American Revolutionary War, but it could surely apply just as well to the Peloponnesian Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the American War in Vietnam, or [provide your own favorite war]. The losers are the soldiers who generation after generation willingly offer themselves up as cannon-fodder, and the civilians who get caught in the middle. The winners are the arms merchants, the defense contractors, the oligarchs (do you really think the only oligarchs are Russian?).
So now we’ve got another war on our hands. This time it’s young Russian soldiers and young Ukrainian soldiers who are killing each other while who-knows-how-many thousands of Ukrainian civilians are suffering and dying. So far, at least, young American soldiers are not yet engaged, though additional U.S. forces have been deployed to Poland, and the public clamor to “do something” to help Ukraine grows louder and ever more shrill with each passing day. Let us all hope this war spreads no farther, and comes to an end as mercifully soon as possible.
But whatever happens, it is highly unlikely that ordinary people, everyday folks like you and me—whatever our nationality—will be among the winners.
W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.