War Is Kind Summary
"War Is Kind" by Stephen Crane is a poem about the brutal realities of war.
- The speaker proclaims in the first line that "war is kind."
- The poem goes on to reveal a series of grim battlefield images and scenes, which serves to highlight the speaker's point that war is in fact horrible.
- The first, third, and final stanzas are addressed, respectively, to "maiden," "babe," and "Mother," highlighting the grief of those who have lost loved ones in battle.
The first stanza opens with the speaker beseeching a maiden not to weep, “for war is kind.” This opening sentence sets the bitter, ironic tone of the poem as the reader already knows that the brutality of war is the very antithesis of kindness. The speaker says that though the maiden’s lover was knocked down while his frightened horse ran on alone, she should not weep. The dramatic and chaotic image of a young man throwing “wild hands toward the sky” as he is killed sharply contrasts with the speaker’s dispassionate final line: “War is kind.”
In contrast with the intimate setting of the first stanza, the second stanza describes a battlefield setting as if from afar. One can hear the booming sound of the regiment’s drums. The speaker describes the young soldiers as “little souls” who are “born to drill and die.” This line portrays the soldiers not as powerful men in control of their own destinies but as pitiful figures who are powerless to change their fate. An “unexplained glory” flies high above the soldiers. This glory could refer to the flag or simply the abstract notions of valor and bravery that are associated with war. Either way, the fact that the glory is “unexplained” illustrates the futility of what the men on the battlefield are doing; there is no true purpose or real justification behind their battle. It should also be noted that the glory—whether it is a flag or simply the concept of glory—is not down on the battlefield with the men. It flies high above them, demonstrating how far removed the lofty ideals of war are from the physical horrors of battle. The stanza ends with an allusion to a great battle god who looks out over his kingdom, which we would reasonably expect to be full of warriors. Instead, his kingdom merely consists of the dead: “a field where a thousand corpses lie.”
The third stanza reverts to the same type of intimate setting as the first stanza. In it, the speaker asks a baby not to cry, mirroring the request of the poem’s opening line. After acknowledging that the baby’s father died violently in a “yellow” trench, the speaker reiterates that “war is kind.” As the color yellow is often associated with sickness or disease, the phrase “yellow trench” calls to mind a claustrophobic, unsanitary place, perhaps filled with sick and dying soldiers. The jarring contrast between the detailed description of the father’s traumatic death and the speaker’s unfeeling refrain only further highlights the bitter irony of the poem.
The fourth stanza returns us to the battlefield where the flag blazes ferociously with its bold crest of red and gold. Immediately following this patriotic scene is the line “these men were born to drill and die.” The speaker exhorts the flag to show the men the “virtue of slaughter” and to make plain the “excellence of killing.” In this stanza, the flag can be seen to represent society. While the previous stanzas have been focused on the brutality of war itself, this stanza points to the cruelty and indifference of a society that knowingly sends its young men to die and to kill others. It also points to the naivete of the young soldiers themselves, who are easily convinced that killing can be virtuous.
The poem’s fifth and final stanza reverts back to the intimate setting. The speaker implores a mother whose heart is “humble as a button” not to weep on the body of her son. The comparison of a mother’s love to something as insignificant as a button on a uniform...
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represents the ways in which war trivializes and ignores the experiences of the individual. Indeed, the grieving maiden, baby, and mother are all met with the same phrase (“Do not weep / War is kind”), a response that does not acknowledge the unique nature of their loss. The son’s shroud (a cloth used to cover the deceased) is described as “bright” and “splendid,” a juxtaposition that points to the tendency to gloss over grief and suffering by characterizing the death of a soldier as heroic or valiant. Even the structure of the poem serves to ironically show the contradictions in society’s view of war. The highly ordered and repetitive structure of the poem has an almost militaristic feel, despite the emotional and chaotic subject matter. This highlights the irony of our tendency to filter the indescribable devastation of war through such an artificial and dispassionate lens. Though the idea that “war is kind” is blatantly contradictory from the beginning, this poem makes us question the integrity of more widely accepted narratives about war: that there is glory in battle, that it is virtuous to fight, and that it is heroic to die.