Rather than glorifying the romance of combat, antiwar works demythologize war by illustrating the debilitating effects of warfare on the individual combatant, typically a young man whose wartime experience leaves him psychologically or physically shattered. Antiwar literature aims at debunking popular myths about war: The soldier as romantic hero, war as a proving ground for manhood, and death in combat as the patriotic ideal. Antiwar literature subverts these illusions about war through realistic, frequently first-person portrayals of the horrors of combat and its destructive aftermath. Although some writers have a discernible political perspective, most antiwar texts share a broader concern for exposing the horror and brutality of all war. Thus, there is a timeless, universal quality to antiwar literature that aims to provoke a rejection of, rather than a fascination for, war and warfare.
Among the most powerful antiwar statements to emerge from the American Civil War are the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). In “Chickamauga,” the inarticulate horror of the story’s protagonist, a deaf-mute child surveying the carnage of the battlefield, bears poignant witness to the war’s human toll. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895) similarly evokes the wasting effects of the war. Henry Fleming enlists in the Union Army dreaming of heroism, but the terror of the battlefield transforms his quest for personal identity into a cynical rebellion against war and, ultimately, into cowardice. Henry’s identity is shaped by his painful struggle for personal integrity after he deserts his regiment.
The horrors of World War I are captured in William March’s Company K (1933) and in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), which is widely regarded as the quintessential antiwar novel. Narrated by a young soldier who has returned from battle hideously disfigured, Trumbo’s work delivers a stark and profoundly pacifistic message about the dehumanizing effects...
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