Is Crane for or against war in The Red Badge of Courage?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The remit of Crane in this text seems to be wider than simply discussing the merits or otherwise of war. In fact, the text seems to point towards a consideration of the universe's response to human suffering rather than just simply looking at war in general. The text makes it clear that the universe disregards the individual suffering of humans and that humans do not matter in the grand scheme of things. This is something that makes the individual quest of soldiers such as Henry for glory and for plaudits a vain one, as no matter what "courage" he displays his life can be extinguished as easily as the dead squirrel and soldier he comes across, whose stark, rotting corpse acts as a powerful reminder of the fate that awaits all humans, whether in war or not. Note how this disregard for human suffering is described in the following quote that presents a battle:

The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if a club had struck him in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach.

The language in this quote presents these supposedly glorious and brave soldiers in ways that profoundly dehumanise them. Note the simile "like bundles" and the expression on the face of the captain as if "some friend had done him an ill turn." The expression of "mute, indefinite reproach" in the face of the man in the final sentence indicates the pity that such scenes evoke in the reader, as Crane develops a picture of war that has nothing to do with concepts such as bravery and courage and where men are slaughtered indiscriminately. In the face of this suffering, the universe is completely indifferent to what happens to individual humans. Crane is not necessarily for or against war, but it is a feature of the realistic nature of his prose that he exposes the true condition of what it means to be human and the death that is an essential part of that condition.