The Red Badge of Reflection

We live in an age of harsh words and loud voices. The challenges our young people face are enormous enough, not only from a world that appears increasingly hostile, but from a nation that toys dangerously with its own growing divide.

American history shows that split-hues (blue-gray, red-blue) ultimately bleed together in the worst kinds of ways. Red-blue rhetoric is already reaping violence. It’s not out of the question to suggest that the recent attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords might yet prove to be an early volley in a larger conflagration—much as John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid is now widely considered the precipitating event of the Civil War. Let’s hope not.

The politics of division makes for exciting TV but offers little comfort when real life must be resumed. The roots of the Civil War were debated for decades in the corridors of power. In the final analysis the civility of deliberative bodies broke down. We do ourselves no favors straining the bounds of responsible debate with fiery rhetoric.

As for the various political firebrands, blowhards and demagogues stoking the flames on both sides, I say to our young people, watch what they do, not what they say. When they pull out the map to show you some third-world backwater while explaining its geo-political significance well, that may not be a war worth your salt and your blood—unless of course they send their own kids, the ultimate litmus, which they usually don’t.

No one need tell you it’s a war when the bullets fly through your picture window or foreign troops amass in your high school parking lot. You will take up arms to defend your family and community. However by leaving politicians to outline our threats for too long, remote abstractions have replaced proximate dangers. The causa belli of the average American war now eludes the grasp of the average American. It’s fashionable to lambaste the aptitude of regular folks. Yet this incomprehension may be a sign the People are really onto something.

If the world was any safer for our far-flung efforts, we might owe our leaders some gratitude for their surpassing wisdom. That doesn’t seem to be the case however. We’ve had sixty years of ‘distant struggles’, many of which confound the necessity test, much less the victory test. Could We, the People have done any worse than our conflict-happy overlords?

There have been more than a few obituaries which mention how 'all Johnny ever wanted since age five was to be a soldier’. This is not a dishonorable aspiration and I do not wish to disparage sacrifice. But it is a peculiarly American aspiration. By what means is a child’s lifework being communicated to him at such a formative age? Why are we not imparting visions of nuclear scientists and doctors? Adults take up arms, reluctantly and after much deliberation, against discrete threats. Five-year-olds play with toy guns. These two mindsets occupy entirely separate cognitive realms.

A recent survey showed that 83% of American young adults couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map. Presumably some portion of these unwitting adults launch forth on a determined mission to fire bullets in that very place. If we elect as Americans not to know where other places are (our geographic illiteracy is well-reported and to some degree justified by the blanket of two oceans), should there not be a countervailing reluctance to wage war on these unknown locales at the slightest bidding?

There is a troubling mercenary quality to being an open-ended soldier for any occasion deemed ‘strategic’ by a tiny few. Our Founding Fathers were rightly wary of standing armies. That’s not to say there aren’t honorable and intelligent Americans in the military. There are. I’m friends with a number of them. But it’s interesting how the powers-that-be dangle education treats only after military service is completed. When you think about it, installed power interests have little incentive to assist a populist outbreak of critical thinking especially in energetic young people–far better to harness those energies for enforcing martial law in distant lands.

As I re-read The Red Badge of Courage recently in a run-up to writing (my Civil War musical) SIDES, I was struck by the utter self-absorption Henry Fleming (the Youth) displays as he compulsively weighs perceived character deficiencies in his mind. In the second half of the novel, the inner dialogue thins out noticeably. War makes Henry a man. He starts to forget himself a bit.

It brought to mind our Hollywood icons enlisted to uphold the cause of murderous self-absorption; Rambo and the like, with sprayed-on sweat, exaggerated grime, gym-built biceps and dead-eye aim as they kill one cardboard-cutout adversary after another. In film parlance we call the foreigners—always quick to collapse beneath hails of Hollywood bullets—extras. In human parlance, they are third-world apparitions who don’t add up to flesh and blood. It isn't murder if they're not really here, but simply over there. Manifest Destiny creates the destined and everyone else who are largely in the way.

There are in The Red Badge of Courage the earliest glimmers of American narcissism. The wars of the late nineteenth century were in many ways attempts to recapture the excitement and intense experiences of the Civil War. Stephen Crane (born after the Civil War) expressed the apprehension that young men of his generation may never come to enjoy the manly opportunities presented by war. Nostalgia works its distortive effects very quickly.

In 1894, a year before The Red Badge of Courage appeared, future President Theodor Roosevelt expressed to a friend his longing for “a general national buccaneering expedition to drive the Spanish out of Cuba, the English out of Canada." More than a few historians have suggested Teddy’s desire for adventure indulged a mountaineer’s eye for molehills or what his friend John Hay longingly referred to as “splendid little wars”. In the late 19th century ‘near and present dangers’ sprouted up throughout the hemisphere and in the Asian Pacific.

Relishing war as a means of adventure, and not an absolute last resort, makes a pastime of the unthinkable. War does not serve us. We serve it, often with calamitous results. The danger lies in thinking we can make the rest of the world an instrumentality: Me, warrior. You, extra.

For their part, young people get understandably excited about the prospect of a grand adventure and a mission larger than themselves. The career path in America is looking increasingly thin these days, much like a two-chuted, foregone conclusion: the military or McDonalds. In short, we made few plans for our kids and they know it. They are bidding on military adventure at a rigged auction.

Our young people are good and decent. They look to us for appropriate avenues to express their inherent honor, courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. The aftermath of war is becoming too visible to ignore. We are selling them flag-draped PTSD in dubious locales. Rambo and his ilk are the ambassadors of a very bad deal. The only way to undo a lifetime of falsehood is to undo life itself, or so it can seem to a 19-year-old stuck in the Afghan wasteland. Our military kids are killing themselves twice as fast as the enemy can. The grammar of war must be expanded to include the full range of its human effects. Suicide and the potential for lifelong psychological debilitation are too often left out of a comprehensive war vocabulary. A recent Army study showed that up to 31% of soldiers returning from Iraq suffers from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Tours of duty can be lifelong assignments.

This is not an argument for peace at all costs. War is at times necessary. Many brave men and women have given their lives for worthy causes. Reflexive peace is as ill-considered as permanent war. But again to the kids I say, don’t listen to us. Take Stephen Crane with a grain of salt as well. The warrior within you will arise, if he is required, without external coaxing. May God see fit that you not require his murderous employ.


NORMAN BALL is a poet, playwright, essayist and musician residing in Virginia. A featured poet on Prairie Home Companion, his poems and essays have appeared in Light Quarterly, The Raintown Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Epicenter, Oxford Magazine, The Cumberland Poetry Review, 14 by 14, Rattle, Liberty, The Hypertexts, Main Street Rag, The New Renaissance, The Scotsman, The London Times among dozens of others. His essay collections, How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (2010) and The Frantic Force (2011), both widely available on the web, are published by Del Sol Press and Petroglyph Books, respectively. His recent play SIDES: A Civil War Musical (Inspired by The Red Badge of Courage) is currently being produced for TV by Last Tango Productions, LLC.