It is heroes, not cowards, who are the star of most literature of war. Even realistic, gritty stories, showing the horror and the pain of war, rarely feature as their protagonist men who run. This is the uniqueness of The Red Badge of Courage: it is like other books with its war characters, like All Quiet on the Western Front, Quiet Flows the Don (some theme of quietness?), Le Feu, a work which looks at the vernacular of war, which shows the conditions of men, their own language, the fear of combat, but the difference is that in Stephen Crane’s book, Henry Fleming runs in the face of danger, and has to win back his spurs, has to hide his secret. It is a story of ups, downs, of bravery and cowardice.
The Red Badge of Courage revolves around the story of a young man, barely more than a boy, who joins the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War. Caught up in a flood of popular enthusiasm for battle, by the study of the classics and Homer which fill him with dreams of glory, and the lust for adventure, his time in the army proves to be distinctly less exciting than he thought it would be, until the guns begin to blaze and he is swept up in one of the bloody battles of the Civil War.
What makes it so compelling is that Henry Fleming is a man who is distinctly average: he comes from a distinctly average Northern home, he has distinctly common dreams of glory, distinctly average dreams of love, and above all he acts distinctly average: he often doesn’t get along well with his fellow soldiers, he doubts himself, he tries to rationalize how to think himself in the best light, and above all else in battle he is a man who both runs and fights, capable of feats of courage and yet also cowardice. And life in the army has all of its warts: the feeling of uselessness, the endless waiting, the rumor mill, the bragging, the everyday life of a soldier off of the field of war.
This is conveyed superbly too in the accents of the books, in how superbly it translates the accents of the common northerners, how faithfully it shows how they spoke, that carefully shows the clipped sounds of their speech, their country accents. It can be hard to read at times, but it is a brilliant artifact of the language of the late 19th century, which gives the people of the book so much character and verve.
A story that can be applied to any battle, whose description lingers at length on the emotions traversing the men, upon the troops, upon the battle - but which rarely alights upon the physical environment, which shows war from the ground level. Soldiers might speculate and wonder about how they will be moved across the field, gossip and jeer, but in the end they are in the dark: it could be any battle. A confused, vicious affair, of charges and counter-charges, where no one knows what the plan is, where even the name of the battle isn’t mentioned. And the reference again and again to “the youth,” makes for a universality – that it could be any youth, any young man swept up in enthusiasm for the army and off to the war. It gives a general feeling, a perception of what battle is like in the smoke-drenched, confused, high-pitched days of the Civil War,
This notion of regeneration seems like an inevitable feature of any great war: that for the sacrifices to be worth it, there must be a tremendous reconstruction of society afterwards. After the First World War, in both France and Britain there was the consensus that from the horrors of war must come a better, more just society, and the Second World War famously led to the creation of the modern welfare state. The Red Badge of Courage can be read ambiguously, with its horrors of war and how it can degrade men, but it also shows a band of brothers forged: the end result is decidedly positive. This is a very real thing of course, a group of young men bonded by a dreadful conflict, but its portrayal in literature as a force of moral rejuvenation is a fascinating one, seemingly quite common in the later 19th century.
In this sense, books like The Red Badge of Courage give a false feeling from war: it writes of the positive changes of a man and a small group of soldiers, who become more confident, more courageous, who forge bonds between themselves, but in reading this it projects a feeling from the time that surely this must have ennobled and uplifted society as a whole. War might have some positive incidental effects, but it is as a whole is death, destruction, misery, and suffering: it doesn’t ennoble society, but rather batter and push it down.
Taking The Red Badge of Courage as a metaphor for the nation, beyond the individual, has its pitfalls, but its story of a young man, confused in battle, the near comedy of his efforts to justify himself, the fear, the atmosphere of fire that gives you a feeling of being in hell, speckled with the reminders that the struggle of blood takes place on our own green earth – it is an eternal, timeless, and beautiful one. It’s not a long book, but it’s a moving one, showing the fears, hopes, dreams, the triumphs and the tragedies of an innocent young man in the furnace of war.