“He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.” – Stephen Crane
I finally finished this book, which is a sad testament to my reading skills since it’s only 186 pages. But since finishing my exams, I have found myself in an odd predicament that I have never been in: not the mood to read. I’m not talking about just reading anything about accounting/auditing/computers, I mean anything! But I’m working on it.
For those who haven’t read this book, it’s by Stephen Crane and it’s about a youth (Henry) entering the fight in the Civil War on the side of the North. Crane takes us along on the youth’s journey from enlisting as a naive boy with visions of dominating the enemy and heroically battling evil to realizing the horrors of war, examining his reactions to these horrors, to finally becoming a man and soldier who can look back on his war experience with mixed emotions and some pride.
There were two very interesting themes that struck me in this book. First, most war books I have read talk about the soldiers looking forward to after the battle/war when they can find someplace peaceful to settle down. “He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks – an existence of soft and eternal peace” (p. 186). That has been a theme in roughly 80% of the war books I’ve read. I don’t think this just applies to soldiers obviously but probably means more to them than to civilians given what the soldiers have seen and been through and it’s certainly a worthwhile pursuit.
The second theme that really struck me is the images of battle and Henry’s reactions to them. I thought Crane did an excellent job of really bringing raw and honest emotion to Henry in this regard. Henry really tries to imagine how he will react in his first battle and he starts to panic at the thought he might run away. Like most people, he hopes he can be brave enough to stand up and fight the good fight and not abandon his fellow soldiers. It turns out that Henry fights many battles, each with their own personal demons for him and how he reacts and thinks in these situations was very raw. I was floored that Crane wrote this novel after having never fought in a battle (he wasn’t even born when the Civil War was going on) which to me, given his amazing insight, was just stunning.
Crane also did an excellent job of bringing up something I rarely think of when reading books like this and that’s that just because there is a major war going on, life in all other areas marches (no pun intended) on. “As he gazed around him the youth felt a flash of astonishment at the blue , pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields. It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment” (p. 52). Then a friend of mine posted a quasi-trivia question this week whose answer was the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946 with Dana Andrews) which is about three WWII veterans who return home after the war and try to readjust to their new civilian lives and the fact that their friends and loved ones have carried on in their absence. Maybe I hadn’t thought much about this because the books that I have read have done such an outstanding job of pulling me into the details of the particular battle or because they have done such a poor job of showing the reader the bigger picture. I really hope it’s the former and not the latter (that would be depressing).
One movie I just watched for the first time (I’d give it 3 1/2 of 5 stars) that did a decent job of this was “Sargeant York” with Gary Cooper. It showed both what was happening on the war front during WWI and back at home to some extent. Although this movie was 2 1/2 hours, it seemed both slow (the beginning) and rushed (the end). It’s definitely worth checking out but it wouldn’t have made my list of top 10 war movies of all time. And speaking of that…
I’ve given this some serious thought since someone asked me the other day what my favorite war book and war movie of all time was (although, I personally think questions like this are janky – who can possibly know that which so many still to be read/seen?) and that started me thinking. The best war book I have ever read would have to be Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day” about D-Day in WWII. Incidentally, the movie based on the book came in on my all-time war movie list at #3. “Band of Brothers” would be #1 but this isn’t set in stone. I keep flipping back and forth between that and “All Quiet on the Western Front” which is about WWI and I first saw in 8th grade history (I think this might have also been the beginning of my love of both history and military history). I still have a ton of books on my shelf about various battles (including some new additions thanks to comments on this blog!!!) to even begin to consider a top 10 list of war books but here’s what I have for war movies (and with the exception of the flipping mentioned above, rarely changes):
#1. Band of Brothers #6. Saving Private Ryan
#2. All Quiet on the Western Front #7. Best Years of Our Lives
#3. The Longest Day #8. Since You Went Away
#4. The Fighting Sullivans #9. Bridge Over the River Kwai
#5. Tora! Tora! Tora! #10. The Great Escape
Please note that “Pearl Harbor” (Ben Affleck, need I say more) and “Troy” didn’t make this list because my main requirement is that the movie can’t be so cheesy that I cringe on my couch while watching it. Do you agree/disagree with the list? What are your favorite war books and/or movies? Any you would highly recommend?
On another note, I’m taking a break from US military history for a bit and focusing on Canadian history in my pursuit of all things Canadian (which will be the overall focus this year). My theory is that the people who write the questions for NTN trivia are Canadian physicists that have an affection for Conway Twitty so I’m focusing on the Canadian part of that (I don’t think I can handle books about Conway Twitty personally). So I’m taking any suggestions for books to read about Canada!