Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895


At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way…He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage. Stephen Crane

Spoiler Alert

Though it’s been reduced to retail sales, barbecues and the unofficial launch of summer, Memorial Day is supposed to be a way to remember and honor soldiers who’ve died in war. Many books, films and games glorify war by focusing on the victories while ignoring the cost. But there is a cost and since the American Revolution over one million American soldiers have paid with their lives.

I debated reading books like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, both irreverent looks at the military and war written by veterans. I started each, but the cynicism just didn’t feel like a good fit for the holiday. But I wanted to review a book that portrayed war realistically without trivializing the aftermath. So, I chose The Red Badge of Courage which fulfills the Classic Book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). It’s a compelling look at war through the eyes of a young soldier learning the difference between what he imagines war to be and what war really is.

The short novel follows young Henry Fleming, a naïve glory-seeking Union soldier eager to prove himself on the battlefield during the Civil War.

When the story begins, Henry and his companions wait for battle.  So far, the glory Henry seeks alludes him since his company has not seen any skirmishes. The quiet before the storm gives Henry’s fear and doubt a chance to thrive as he wonders how he’ll react if the chance to fight finally comes. Will he fight bravely? Will he flee? Will he survive?

When war finally comes to him, he does in fact run. Crane delves into the psychology of the main character and doesn’t hold back from presenting him in a negative and sometimes foolish light. Henry’s guilt and self-loathing come out in obnoxious and sometimes cruel ways. We see the toll Henry’s desertion takes on his character.  When he finds himself alone with ample time to recount his misdeed, he transforms from romantic dreamer to bitter cynic. And once he meets up with actual wounded soldiers paranoia sets in as he fears his shameful secret will be revealed.

While things happen around Henry and impact his choices, the novel is less about the war and more about the mindset of this young man as he witnesses the horrors of war nobody talks about. He eventually redeems himself and not only makes peace with his earlier actions but embraces them for their part in making him the man he eventually becomes. Side note: The edition of the book I read included the sequel “The Veteran” published a year after The Red Badge of Courage. In this micro story (eight pages) an older Henry reflects on the war with his young grandson and in fact readily admits to running.