Over the break I have been rereading Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. I am struck by the writer’s ability to capture the heat of battle on the page when he had never experienced a war in his life. His work is so descriptive and impressionistic, utilizing the contrasts between nature and war, cowardice and redemption, innocence and maturity.
Henry Fielding reacts to battle much like we might react if thrust into such a situation. He runs away. His subsequent encounters with Jim Conklin, a soldier dead on his feet, the dead body in the clearing, and the deserter who smashes his head giving him the much sought “red badge” that later marks him erroneously as a hero, all demonstrate different aspects of soldiering and the horrors of war. Henry’s redemption shows us that courage and cowardice are not easily defined.
Ultimately, Crane was a journalist, and although his work is fictional, he wanted to get to the element of truth. What is it like to be in the heat of battle? What is heroism and cowardice?
Why do we need these books? The answer might seem obvious: we need them because we must know and understand what war means, and what our soldiers do when we ask them to go to far off lands and fight in the name of our country.
And not only do we need to know how a war is fought today, we need to know how they have been fought in the past, and what consequences each endeavor has left us with as a nation.
A few days before the break, our school counselors came into my senior English class to perform a short skit about registering for the Selective Service. The skit was done in a humorous tone, and most of the kids were left with a “what the hell was that?” look on their faces. I tried to explain that registering meant that in the case of a draft, the government would know where to begin to locate them. Most of them did not blink at this. I explained that if this were forty-some years ago, they would be just a few months away from service eligibility, meaning they could be drafted.
My generation and the ones that I have taught over the years, have no idea what a war or being a soldier is like. Thankfully, we have been relatively unscathed by recent military actions, but there is a deep divide between the American soldier and the average young American. For many of us, this war on terror is nothing like the experiences of those who lived through Vietnam or the Second World War.
That is why we need to continue to read war books, and it is why we need more books in the tradition of The Red Badge of Courage. If we are ever to evolve into a state where war is obsolete, and human beings do not solve their differences with guns and bombs, we need to remember what it is like to fight for our lives, the sheer terror, destruction, and annihilation of life and property inherent in a war.
For this reason, we need war stories.