In the third section of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage,while Henry Fleming becomes an experienced soldier and is respected by his fellow soldiers, he has learned that many of the obligations of a life can be easily avoided. Henry has clearly also experienced a transformation. believing that "a stout heart" often escapes harm. He imagines how he will return home and provide people with glowing stories of the war.
In contrast to this glorified vision, Chapter XVI points to the senseless of the battles in which the men are engaged. Henry's regiment is marched to an area where they are to relieve another. As the men wait for battle, Wison lies down to sleep, and Henry cannot talk over the din of the guns:
But at last the guns stopped, and among the men in the rifle pits rumors again flew, like birds, but they were now for the most part black creatures who flapped their wings drearily near to the ground and refused to rise on any wings of hope. The men's faces grew doleful from the interpreting of omens.
This passage is an example of Crane's skillful use of simile, imagery, metaphor, and naturalism. The men mistakenly interpret "omens" from what is really an indifferent universe. For, shortly thereafter, the sun comes out as though things are bright and cheerful: "Before the grey mists had been totally obliterated by the sun's rays....."
Later in this chapter, Henry rails against the way in which his regiment fights, saying,
"Nobody seems to know where we go or why we go.... We just get fired around from pillar to post and get licked here and get licked there, and nobody knows what it's done for. It makes a man feel like a damn' kitten in a bag. Now, I'd like to know what the eternal thunders we was marched into these woods for anyhow, unless it was to give the rebs a regular pot shot at us. We came in here and got our legs all tangled up in these cussed briers, and then we begin to fight and the rebs had an easy time of it. Don't tell me it's just luck! I know better. It's this derned old—”
But, the lieutenant savagely interrupts him, ordering the regiment to quick their haggling. The worn men quiet down and the battle roar "settled to a rolling thunder" as the soldiers "stood as men tied to stakes," again mere pawns in a futile battle.
In Chapter XVII, Henry undergoes a transformation, but it is not one that the army has effected. Instead, he becomes enraged. losing his former terror; it is his selfishness rather than his loyalty to the Union that precipitates his "bravery." For, rather than truly displaying uncommon valor, Henry's fury is directed at himself for having behaved like a coward, and at the universe for its indifference, and at the enemy. Nevertheless, when he returns to his comrades and "sprawled like a man who had been thrashed. His flesh seemed strangely on fire..." Yet, the lieutenant praises him.
By this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be mountains. They had fallen like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process.
These chapters of Crane's novel certainly underscore the futility of war and the indifference of the universe to the activities of man.