In "An Episode of War," one of the main factors the reader becomes aware of is the isolation of the men involved in combat. As in The Red Badge of Courage , Crane treats the Civil War generically, in some sense, declining to name the specific battles taking...
In "An Episode of War," one of the main factors the reader becomes aware of is the isolation of the men involved in combat. As in The Red Badge of Courage, Crane treats the Civil War generically, in some sense, declining to name the specific battles taking place and the dates during which the action is occurring.
This is emblematic of the soldier's inability to see the big picture of warfare. He is generally aware of only the immediate action taking place in his limited sphere in the field. Though there is no reason to believe that the lieutenant in "An Episode of War" is an unwilling participant—a secret pacifist who would have preferred not serving—he seems thrust into an incomprehensible situation. All war is, of course, the result of political conflict, the opposition of ideas and goals between the sides fighting against each other.
In 1861–1865, this conflict, in spite of the constant attempts by many historians and revisionists to deny it, was about the institution of slavery. Yet on both sides, the men fighting, whether having volunteered or having been conscripted, were not necessarily personally committed to either side of the conflict. Crane, especially in a brief story, doesn't give us the thoughts of the participants beyond their efforts to survive the battle.
When the lieutenant is wounded and goes to the rear of the line for medical treatment, he sees the command center of the battle, a man galloping up and delivering a message, as if it's "an historical painting." He's remote from the commands directing the battle, so much so that the action behind the lines appears unreal. The disconnect is a form of conflict not always noted in descriptions of warfare.
A final conflict (though one could argue this is not exactly an external one) is that between the wounding of men in battle and their reluctance, understandably, to be operated on in the surgical tents. This was a time when no anesthetics were generally available on the field. Amputations were performed as quickly as possible, but the agony of enduring this was a constant source of the worst fears of the men in battle. One need only read the descriptions in, for instance, Tolstoy's War and Peace to see the horror of the necessary medical treatments as they were carried out in nineteenth-century warfare. The lieutenant in Crane's story knows what awaits him on the surgical table, and the result, an amputation, was the only thing at the time that would prevent the spread of infection from a bullet wound and the death of the soldier.