One can surmise given Stephen Crane’s life and the previous publication of his most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage, that the audience for his later poem “War is Kind” was those who perhaps missed the point of his earlier novel.
Stephen Crane was not a military veteran. He had, though, conducted research into the nature and horrors of war for the manuscript of what became The Red Badge of Courage. That novel is about a young Civil War soldier, Private Henry Fleming, who, common among young aspiring warriors, has an idealized vision of war only to learn first-hand the realities of armed conflict. The contrast between the tendency among young men to idealize war and the brutality and horrors that represent the realities form the theme of Crane’s poem “War is Kind.”
Each stanza of “War is Kind” drips with the irony and sarcasm of one who retains absolutely no misconceptions about the nature of warfare. Note in the following lines the contrast between vision and reality:
Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.
“War is Kind” is about the misconceptions, the mythology surrounding war, and the sorrow of those left behind: the girlfriends, wives, and mothers who lost loved ones who departed with visions of glory. The intended audience for Crane’s poem, one could conclude, was those who continued to harbor misbegotten beliefs about the nature of war and the trauma that affects those who leave to fight and those who stay behind and wait. As Crane’s poem was published, the American public was once again imbued with nationalistic fervor, this time directed against Spanish imperialism, and war between Spain and the United States was the latest manifestation of the very psychological phenomenon decried in “War is Kind.”