This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 120th of the publication of a story that, though it seems tame today, was controversial at its birth for its frank portrayal of combat and its journalistic depiction of warriors not as heroes but as mortals subject to confusion, fear, and all the other ordinary human shortcomings.
Published in 1895, just a couple of years before Stephen Crane witnessed battle for himself in Cuba, The Red Badge of Courage is the story of a young man, 18-year-old Henry Fleming, who joins a New York regiment, seeking glory. He quickly finds that war is inglorious and messy, and when his unit falls back in battle during its first engagement at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he keeps on falling back until he is at sufficient distance to be considered a deserter.
A series of conversations and encounters with other soldiers follows, and Fleming slowly works his nerve back up and returns to the front. There, he finds that the commanding general despises his regiment so much that he is willing to send it to certain, pointless death. In battle, a wounded Henry, confused no more, becomes a lion, leading his fellow soldiers on to a hard-won victory. “He had been where there was red of blood and black of passion, and he was escaped,” writes Crane, adding, “His first thoughts were given to rejoicings at this fact.”
In John Huston’s 1951 film adaptation, as much a classic as Crane’s story, Fleming, called The Youth, is played by Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II. The achievements that brought the Texas farm boy so much honor cost him dearly. His wife reportedly said that he suffered from constant nightmares and slept with a gun under his pillow, while an old friend of mine, a retired sheriff’s deputy, told me tales of Murphy’s going out on patrol with him in the 1950s to keep from sleeping in the first place. Another role is played by Bill Mauldin, the GI correspondent whose “Willie and Joe” comics gave soldiers so much pointed pleasure as they slogged their way across Europe, who said of Murphy, “In him, we all recognized the straight, raw stuff, uncut and fiery as the day it left the still. Nobody wanted to be in his shoes, but nobody wanted to be unlike him, either.”
We have become inured to constant war since Crane’s time. There are those out there who ache to revive issues long since settled by the Civil War, always invoking states’ rights when they mean to deny civil rights. Those who drum loudest are willing to fund vast armies but not pay a cent for a civilization worth fighting to defend. Against them, I think of Crane and his book—and of Audie Murphy, the real America, and those in battle slain, never to rise, in order to keep that sleeping nation alive.Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.