Ambrose Bierce

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What is the story Killed at Resaca saying about heroism? The narrator expresses some ambivalence towards Lt. Brayle by using expressions like "vain of his courage" and "the cause of the carnage." How can these ambiguities be interpreted and analyzed in order to create a substantial discussion?

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Ambrose Bierce's short story "Killed at Resaca" is a commentary on the meaninglessness of heroism. 

The story follows the battle practices and foolish death of Herman Brayle, a Lieutenant in the Union Army who has been brought in "from some Ohio regiment" to serve as an officer...

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Ambrose Bierce's short story "Killed at Resaca" is a commentary on the meaninglessness of heroism. 

The story follows the battle practices and foolish death of Herman Brayle, a Lieutenant in the Union Army who has been brought in "from some Ohio regiment" to serve as an officer due to the general's belief that to choose a man to lead a brigade who belongs to that brigade would result in distracting jealousy. We get our first sense of what it means to be heroic in the description of the general's reasoning:

Under such circumstances, a man's services had to be very distinguished indeed to be heard of by his family and the friends of his youth; and "the speaking trump of fame" was a trifle hoarse from loquacity, anyhow. 

In other words, it's not enough to simply serve your country in a war to be labeled heroic by your peers; rather, one must do something extraordinary. This seems to suggest the arbitrary nature of the term: that heroism is something to be sought after, like a prize... pursued even more fervently than the greater good of one's fellow unit or of the warring factions themselves.

We learn that Brayle prefers to stay in full uniform, as "a very striking and conspicuous figure," while the other officers prefer to dress more comfortably and with less flair. Although his inferiors admire Brayle, they do recognize his "objectionable and unsoldierly quality" of being "vain of his courage"; Brayle doesn't take cover in battle, whether he's on foot or on horseback. The narrator does suggest that, "in all these needless exposures of life there was no visible bravado nor subsequent narration," but they are needless nonetheless. Whether or not the tonality of these gestures is self-important, they are grounded in the same intention: to appear heroic or be heroic. This is a useless and stupid pursuit, and it is what ultimately costs Brayle his life. 

After being caught at an impassable gully, Brayle is shot to death by Confederate forces. Both sides immediately cease firing, and as Brayle's body is hauled away on a stretcher, Confederate officers pay tribute to this "sacred burden" and the Confederate soldiers play a dirge. This unlikely event highlights how silly military heroics are; two groups of men will pause to admire the "valiant" behavior of someone and then immediately resume killing each other after they are finished. Brayle's death doesn't lead to any real or lasting changes of heart within these troops. The bloody war rages on just as soon as his body is removed. In addition, there was nothing inherently "heroic" about it; Brayle dies in an intentional, suicidal fashion that does not actually aid the war effort in any capacity.

This point is really driven home by the end of the story. The narrator finds a letter in Brayle's belongings that was written by a female love interest. The woman writes that she has heard from another soldier that Brayle was "seen crouching behind a tree" in battle, and that she could "bear to hear of [her] soldier lover's death, but not of his cowardice." Thus, we learn the reasoning behind Brayle's behavior. He has acted in such a brazen, foolish fashion as not to be perceived as cowardly by a woman who knows nothing of the realities of war. He is not at all heroic--but rather, simply full of childish pride. The soldiers who have celebrated Brayle as a hero now look ridiculous given this new context, as they have honored a stubborn man's death at the request of a superficial, thoughtless woman. 

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