Self-knowledge and Courage
When Henry leaves his mother’s farm to sign up for the
Union army, he knows little about the world, or about himself.
He appears to have led a sheltered life in a rural environment.
What he knows about war is only what he has read in the classics
of the ancient world. He thinks war is a glamorous thing, and
he looks forward to playing his part in it and performing great
deeds of valor. At the same time he doubts whether modern man,
made timid by education, can still muster the “throat-grappling
instinct” that is the nature of true heroic struggle.
(At least that’s what he thinks heroism is, based on what
he has read in books.)
a vast difference between Henry’s idea of military service
and that of his mother, who, naturally enough, is older and
wiser. After he tells her he has decided to enlist, he is disappointed
that she does not give him the instructions supposedly given
to warriors in ancient Sparta: return either with your shield
or on it. In other words, conquer or die in the attempt. His
mother has a more realistic view of what is necessary; she tells
him not to think that he can defeat the entire rebel army by
himself: “Yer just one little feller amongst a hull lot
of others, and you’ve got to keep quiet an’ do what
they tell yuh” (p. 17). She also tells him that when a
difficult situation arises, he must just do what is right.
listens to her. His education in courage only begins when the
battle starts. To his dismay, he founds out what he is capable
of, and it is the opposite of courage. He deserts under fire.
And then he allows his mind to perform all kinds of tricks to
prove that what he did was right, that it was a reasonable response
to circumstances. Henry reaches his lowest point when he deserts
the tattered soldier—he cannot even offer support to a
wounded man who will probably die soon if he receives no assistance.
If war is quickly showing Henry what he is really made of, the
verdict so far is not a happy one. He has found that he can
sink very low.
manages to redeem himself is greatly to his credit. He becomes
desperate to prove himself, so he too, like the wounded men
he encounters, can have a “red badge” of courage.
And when the time comes, he just does what he has to do. This
time, he does not think too much of what he is doing. That was
his error the previous time, when he ran away. He allowed his
mind to take over. This time he gives full rein to his instincts.
He allows the “war god” to take over. By doing so,
he discovers resources within himself that he had not known
were there, and he becomes an inspiration to officers and men
In the course
of just a few days, Henry has received an education about war
and about himself. He has discovered that the reality of war
is very different from what he had imagined it to be, and he
now despises his former, idealistic, romantic notions. He has
had a gruesome initiation. He has seen wounded men, dying men,
dead men, men under the terrible stress of battle. The noise
of battle has pounded in his ears, and he has become familiar
with what today is sometimes called “the fog of war.”
In the fog of war, rumors fly, uncertainty abounds. The individual
soldier knows little about the larger details of the battle.
The only sure thing he knows is that the bullets are flying
and that he must fight back.
At the end
of the novel, Henry has come to know what he is capable of.
He remembers his act of cowardice but he does not let it dominate
his thoughts. He also knows that he showed courage when it mattered.
Like his friend Wilson, he has become wiser and more mature
as a result of his experiences in war.