Thoughts on “Red Badge of Courage”

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I am taking some time to read some of the books for my 15-year-old daughter’s literature class, and just finished reading “Red Badge of Courage.” I have discussed some part with her already, but I wanted to write a short review about the book, just to pull from my brain the impression it made upon me—nothing fancy or not super in-depth. This is also in keeping with my goal for the blog.

My wife and daughter said she cried at parts, and so, having cried at Where the Red Fern Grows, I prepped myself. But I just did not get the emotional connection she did—I take that back. She connected to the slaughter, but I didn’t. It was too vague for me. I connected very intimately with the youth, but not the countless soldiers dying around him. I thought the writing was stiff and staccato, and was distracting. It was a curious mixture of Civil War slang and sophisticated language, and I thought some of the imagery was odd or forced.

One month out of high school I was in U.S. Army basic training, learning a whole new definition of fear, pain and torture. I remember going through those same thoughts about courage and cowardice. I tried to put myself into scenarios and ask honestly—would I function? Would I run? Would I fight? Would I actually kill someone? I remember sitting and realizing the foolishness of my childish fantasies of war. This was real—a real gun with real bullets and real bullets would be fired at me. Was I really a coward or not?

I have also trained in martial arts and have felt, at times during intense sparring, that almost hysterical, ragged animal rage and exhausted focus on survival. I am not saying it is anything like time in combat, just that I have felt it. I thought the book portrayed these characteristics well. I was especially moved when he fled in battle and his mind writhed with shame and self-justifications. Also, in his first conflict after returning to his regiment, he went into a blind fury, continuing to fire when the enemy had gone. He notes that other stare at him and concludes they are admiring him, when we suspect they don’t.

Overall, this book paints a portrait of a boy transitioning to veteran, embodying the flag and leading others in the charge. I believe instinctively that every soldier must go through this process of innocence, intensity, shame, insanity, and resolution. I thought there was more violence going on in his heart and mind than there was on the field of battle.

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