I read The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Although I think it misses the concept that religion is man-made (Crane thinks that religion is what separates man from beast), this book brings up very valid criticisms of the assumed respect we have for soldiers, and the implication that their motives for fighting are more important than the ability to fight itself.

A Brief Overview

In his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane demonstrates his view of mankind, and specifically his differentiation between man and the rest of life, and what it takes to prove humanity. He does this by following the story of Henry Fleming, a naive and somewhat anxious soldier fighting in the US Civil War. Fleming is pondering whether he will fight or fly upon seeing real war, and whether he would be a man if he did flee. Although in some cases, Crane seems to be ironically suggesting that being wounded is a sign of manliness, which is likely a critique of common conceptions about maturity in general, he eventually relays his real beliefs on the nature of humans: man is different than beast, because man is alone in his religious and patriotic loyalty.

Henry Fleming

Fleming was, by all evidence in the book, a naive, yet thoughtful young man. He is known to be philosophizing quite often. The book applies little emphasis on his previous affairs before joining the army, for that is inconsequential to the purpose of the book; Fleming is, regardless of his specific religious creed, family, or racial group, identifiable as a soldier foremost. And even at that, Crane suggests that studying an individual soldier is not fruitful, unless they desert. For example, in a dialogue with an old soldier, the elder says “I s’pose I’ll do as well as the rest [of soldiers]. I’m going to try like thunder … I’m not going to skedaddle. The man that bets on my running will lose his money … I didn’t say I was the bravest man in the world, neither. I said I was going to do my share of fighting” (Crane 23-24). Here, Crane is demonstrating two closely related conceptions about war and bravery. Firstly, war, ideally, is regarded as a large group of soldiers working together, and their individual stories do not matter unless it directly helps them try like thunder. Secondly, Crane analyzes the fact that a respectable soldier will not run, evidenced by the elder’s view that he would not run because he wishes to be a brave man.

Quite ironically, on a metatextual level, The Red Badge of Courage betrays this paradigm quite drastically: it is a story about an individual’s thoughts and discussion on loyalty to a nation, yet it involves Fleming running away from battle. This shows that Crane disagrees with the notion that a soldier should always be thoughtlessly loyal, and instead come to his own conclusion on the cause which he is fighting for. And in this way, Henry Fleming is the antithesis of what Crane believed American society’s idealized soldier to be. This characteristic, his individual thought processes and questioning of both motives and man’s nature, is Crane’s vision of a successful soldier. This vision and depiction render Fleming’s race, nationality, specific loyalty pledges inconsequential to his motives. Ingeniously, Crane has set up Fleming to not rely on these characteristics to tell the story of America or its soldiers, and so has described what Crane thought of America, America’s soldiers, and American society’s view on those same soldiers, and where Crane departs from the common perceptions.

The Book Itself, and My Interpretation

I read this book approximately 2 years ago, and essentially agreed with his notion of having a wound as a soldier at the time, although I admittedly did not previously read on a metatextual level. My personal beliefs have changed in a large and polarizing way since then, which has caused me to completely change my outlook on a so-called red badge of courage. I now also realize that Crane was actually critiquing this view, so I have believed myself to be in agreement with Crane on the subject of soldiers and bravery both times I read the book, even though I now believe I had misinterpreted his meaning the first time I read The Red Badge of Courage. I still disagree heavily with his notion that man and beast are separate, due to our adoption of pledges, religions, and organization into body politics.

The Pledge of Allegience as a Blind-Faith Tool

For example, at best, our pledge of allegiance is an oath to honor all of the principles of the United States of America, which is not a purely ideological stance, but rather shaped by geography and temporal factors. At worst however, the pledge of allegiance represents a blind transferral of our own thoughts in order to put our nation first, people second, and in doing so, we disregard the notion that perhaps America is not perfect. As with most issues, what the pledge means to most is somewhere between, although I doubt any person agrees wholeheartedly with the philosophy of the founding fathers, but the problem is that any sort of pledge such as this will surely bring out the tribalistic nature of humans. Fleming is wrong even in saying that beasts may not wage organized war in the same way humans do. In fact, some animals rely on their herd even more so than a man would his country. And another disagreement with Crane I have is on religion; Crane believes that religion, and its supposed divine intervention to humans, thoroughly divides us from the rest of animals, on some fundamental level. However, I did discover and agree with the reasoning behind his critique of the image of a soldier, so I most assuredly did learn from The Red Badge of Courage.

Should It Matter Which Side Fleming Was Fighting For?

Generally, Fleming is found either on the battlefield, in barracks, or in a chapel. The story occurs in the United States of America during the civil war, which he is representing the union side. However, an important detail is that whichever side Fleming is on is actually inconsequential, because Crane utilizes Fleming’s position as a soldier rather than a specific nation to convey his point. However, this is still directly relevant to America, since America relies on troops for a large portion of our image, and Crane critiques the American view of a soldier and bravery without specifying it explicitly. This all comes at a time where Fleming is questioning and thinking critically, and thus gives him lots of material to ponder in reaching his conclusions on human nature and bravery.

Crane’s Critique, and Ideal Soldier Through Henry Fleming

America, in Crane’s eyes, glorified loyalty too much, and Crane himself found too much iron and not enough rubber with the idea of a soldier and that of bravery. Fleming is characterized as constantly questioning other’s undying loyalty to our state, and doubting whether he will stay and fight, for he might not believe in the justification of war. Once he arrives at the Chapel, and thereafter, Fleming realizes that what really makes one human is the ability to have knowledge, and understanding. He believed that animals possessed skills and values fundamentally different than that of humans. This can also be analogous to the view of American exceptionalists: Americans possess values and loyalty that is fundamentally better than other countries, which can explain a large portion of what can be described as American supremacy.

My Consensus on the Book

I enjoyed reading this book, in a twisted and satiric sort of way. On one level, I agree with his somewhat ironic depiction of manliness, bravery, and loyalty. When we think of bravery, one of the first scenes that comes to mind is that of a soldier staying through a battle with his comrades, regardless of the circumstance, but never questioning the circumstances in which the war begin, or discovering why the soldier is fighting. A wound used as a badge of courage is seen as a signal of one’s devotion to a country, and taking his idea that devotion and loyalty are specifically human, we can simply derive that a soldier bearing a wound proves that he holds one of the most quintessentially and necessarily human traits. Crane is correct to disregard this belief, and instead focus on the truth and reasoning behind soldiers thoughts, and their individualistic nature.

So, while disagreeing with Crane on his larger, less explicit themes of human nature, I do agree with and appreciate his specific critique on soldier’s perception in the public eye. I also enjoyed reading what I disagreed with, because I felt as if it were trying to convince me of some higher purpose, as if by default. Fleming gives no arguments that our religion is necessarily true, other than that it merely exists in some physical form, such as the chapel, and that we recognize the chapel as a religious institute compared to an animal who would not be afflicted by the apparently awesome power bestowed therein. The only thing that proves is that we are able and willing to convince ourselves of things which are completely untrue, simply to place some significance on ourselves. It heavily implies that we have knowledge of the divine, and the animals are there simply unaware and unable to comprehend what has been bestowed to humans alone, and so Fleming (and thus Crane) draw a distinction between the humans and beasts. And in the same way the religious have convinced themselves of their superiority, the loyal have followed suit. Crane seems to touch on this, writing “he [Fleming] saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle” (Crane 180).

A Concise Statement of Crane’s View

Crane is critiquing the idea that life is mechanical for a soldier to simply pledge allegiance and then follow through, and suggesting that personal reflection and individual beliefs were the truly quintessentially human characteristics. After fully appreciating the book, I believe the following line was most entertaining: “He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war” (Crane 180). Crane’s metaphor comparing Fleming to an animal perfectly describes his view of human nature: as an animal (or being without human nature), an animal can only know battle and pain, but can know no reason behind the senseless violence. Crane’s language saying that Fleming was once an animal is very purposeful; before Fleming fully understood the difference between man and animal, he was as clueless as the pig walking into the chapel. Only humans who are aware of the distinction between man and beast can appreciate “tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks”, and be truly purposeful in fighting as part of the military and indeed life itself (Crane 180).