Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Requiem for Martial Honor

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, Read by Roger Dressler, Brilliance Audio, 1993

Sometime shortly before the beginning of the Iraq War, I reread Catch-22 in response to both current events and to an article I had read somewhere that got me thinking on the nature of war fiction. The exact article and the precise argument is now lost to the mists of time, but the point of the piece that stayed with me is that the overwhelming majority of quality modern fiction about war is essentially — and fundamentally — antiwar.

I’m not sure what lasting arguments were factored toward this point, and I don’t recall if the authors considered the unlikelihood that public intellectuals, not generally among the ranks of those fighting wars, would be inclined to embrace pro-war novels. (Exactly what Chomsky might have to say about this we’ll leave aside.) But I knew an important distinction wasn’t being made: war novels written contemporaneously to the specific war are far more likely to be antiwar than historical novels premised on a fetishization of a specific war. You need only look at the cottage industry sprung up around the Civil War to grasp this point.

Certainly running down the list of novels I could recall having read such as Heller’s, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, The Thin Red Line, and Tim O’Brien’s novels, there is the quite straightforward truisms of war is hell, war is degrading, war is dehumanizing to those who fight it. When exactly, I wondered, did the shift take place, when were the heroic celebrations of war, by far much older in tradition, superceded by the miseries of war catalog? Certainly if one goes back to Homer and reads accounts from there on forward, the soldier as noble sacrificer is clearly drawn, even if there are portraits of unheroic types and of the bossy pricks that seem to swarm the lower ranks. While being antiwar per se, these books were almost always pro-grunt-rank soldiers; indeed, the celebration of one’s comrades had become almost the sole positive value in the fiction.

While the genre is nowhere remotely close to being one of my favorites, there are quite a few talented writers who become swept up in the world-epochal elements that go into massive conflicts and produce a fine body of cautionary literature. From my own paltry investigations into the type, I’d conclude that the first major shift in literary attitudes toward combat is concurrent with the American Civil War. Perhaps it was the “everyone losing” quality of a civil war or perhaps it was the democratization process wherein novels were no longer written solely by the upper class, usually safely behind the front lines in the cavalry, but this time period seems to mark the end of the knightly view of battle. Stephen Crane’s novel is its requiem.

Though he hadn’t, by the writing of The Red Badge of Courage, actually seen any combat, Crane is often given the compliment of having captured the psychology and the madness of war in telling and riveting detail. The novel is short, approaching more to novella status and, for this reason, wastes no time in getting immediately into the thick of things. Our protagonist starts out as Henry, a boy from a farm, living with his widowed mother, and as the novel progresses he is stripped of even this identity, becoming simply “he” and “the youth.” As we progress through the story, it becomes less Henry’s story in isolation and transitions into an Everysoldier tale of self-preservation desires amidst chaos and, at times, self-destructive compulsion.

The reader, Roger Dressler, has a smoothly strained basso profundo that at times lowers itself into a pleasant little purr. This James Earl Jonesy quality is always enjoyable, sounds as if it always has a good smile or two in reserve, but stirs your very soul in moments of high emotion. I could almost listen to any book read with such an organ. Of course, the weaknesses are obvious: such a deep voice rarely provides decent female character voices (less a problem in a war story), and has less range to give variation on differing characters. This is most pronounced in how many characters simply gruffly bark, and in the confusion of battle this makes things all the more confusing, not in itself a bad outcome to an obvious weakness. On the nitpicky side, Dressler reads too quickly through his pauses. As a chapter closes in blood and thunder or in silent despair, he rushes right in with Chapter Next and away we go. Were that done in the service of the telling of the story, it might prove effective; here though, it just comes off as rushed.

At the novel’s beginning, Henry only understands war the way it’s been historically presented, the honorable, heroic crucible in which a boy is tested and made a man. He is at first reluctant to join from fear of combat, but he is ultimately more reluctant to not join for fear of being considered a coward. The regular marchings and drums and dispatches from the front eventually stir in him dreams of valor and he signs up, partly to impress a girl and partly to face down his fear. The scene of Henry’s mother’s warning before he leaves is charmingly amusing in an understated way as she punctures all his dramatic imaginings and reminds him he’s just one little man caught in big events. That she tells him she packed him socks and jam is a touching detail. There is, as always in books of war, mom, home, and a hot meal.

Henry considers at one point that the past was the period of war, but that modern day contrivances were making war outdated, obsolete, etc. This is a generational gift, a delusion passed from father to son with each new birth. Likewise, every generation, from the War to End all Wars to the Mother of All Battles, believes that this time, this time for real, we will fight the apocalyptic Big One and forever after we will enter into an Era of Peace. There is something both depressing and reassuring in this dual delusion, yet it often brings to mind Stephen Dedalus’ declaration in Ulysses that “history is a nightmare,” one from which he is not alone in trying to awake.

Part of what’s compelling about the book, what remains compelling long after the Civil War has become, for most, a historic source of various movie scenarios, is Henry’s desire, his overwhelming wish, to be wounded. It is a perverse desire to want to be hurt, but what compounds this perversity is that Henry wants it, not for its own sake, that is, not because he desires pain or to be crippled, but rather because he wishes to possess what oftentimes accompanies it. A red badge, a wound, is a sign of one’s courage, provided, of course, it is on the front of your uniform. Henry for a moment in his first encounter with the enemy fled when his troops were routed, eventually circling back to fight later. This wound, he believes, will purify him, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, who he desperately fears will discover his cowardice.

This is, in Dostoyevsky’s ingenious formulation, the desire for a supreme good, an extremely personal revaluation of what constitutes the positive, something quite often, in general, bad. Henry’s greedy desire to receive a wound for his pride, for his sense of manhood, is a very real condition and is the embodiment in the novel of that lingering historical ideal. It is as though one needed to go so far as to punish oneself to prove to oneself (and to others) the levels of commitment and your true manliness.

The notion, too, of manliness, in front of others and proved to oneself is indeed one of the major themes running through the novel. There is a serious over-ranking of the Other’s opinion above one’s own, as Henry thinks of his shame and his friends, and reflects after getting lost in a retreat from battle, “he had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still man.” What’s not touched on in this weighing of manliness in the personal and manliness in public is that this is the basis of all immorality: that what one does in secret doesn’t count.

In a very real sense, this reminded me of George W. Bush’s intransigence in face of widespread opposition to his Iraq misadventure. It was a manifestation of these desires and beliefs, the wish to prove oneself (after his cowardly pulling upper class rank to secure a safe bunk in the Texas Air National Guard, then later wishing for it to appear a brave choice on his part). But it was also fueled by the delusion that what’s hatched or performed in secret will forever remain a secret, off the books. With a lifetime of cowardice behind him, Bush (and those like him) can sit well removed from the dangers of the front and balm his uneasy conscience by attempting to convince himself that his profile in courage moment came and proved him a man. Throughout the novel, whenever Henry’s guilty conscience came to prick him, I thought of Bush, and I hoped that whatever he felt it was something like burning shame. At the very least.

No comments: