Thursday, May 06, 2010

Clausewitz, the European war expert, was alive at the time of the US Civil War and said it wasn't a war, as previously known, but was armed mobs roaming the countryside.

Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't.

The first part of the fighting and the fighting the next day in Stephen Crane's novel "The Red Badge of Courage," are part of the same battle, but they are very different.

The first day, which involves, on the Union side, where our point of view is, completely inexperienced troops, and officers who must be there but have no obvious effect, is about an armed mob. Our hero, Henry Fleming, runs away, as do many other soldiers.

Fleming is often called "the youth" in the narration, instead of his name, and he is young. When he hears, the night before the battle, other youths talking about how they are looking forward to the fighting, he is sure he is the only one who is afraid.

When, the next day, he comes back to his unit after spending a lot of time running away and being lost, he seems to never get that a lot of guys ran away. When he come back, he tells a soldier in his unit he meets "I got separated," and the guy grins with that direct rural guy humor and says, "Yeah, they're coming in every ten minutes," the many people who got separated. But the youth, our youth, doesn't pick up on that. He thinks it's just him, and that the guys who didn't get separated don't know who ran away.

The next day, Henry, our youth, is involved with other young men in a plan that officers make, lead, and execute. It is a really different battle, though technically part of the same battle. Officers lead. Soldiers do the plan, which works to some extent.

The US Civil War went from being armed mobs roaming the countryside to being a prequel to World War I.

Someone at that time wrote that because of more democracy, history was entering the era of wars of the people, and that wars of the people would be terrible, terrible war.

Big, for one thing. Some famous wars, like the Wars of the Roses in England, between families with ruling hopes, were ignorable by a lot of people. The Civil War in the US killed for many people it was tough to ignore.

As Henry Fleming marches away from the battlefield in "The Red Badge of Courage," he wonders what happened.

He got his red badge of courage, blood on himself, while he was fighting off a wounded man in the rear, where Henry ran to, who wanted his help and companionship. Henry said and pushed, "No."

That was probably a definitive experience, but not the one he dreamed of. Being competent the next day might not make up for it, in Henry's heart.

When Henry, or someone like him, came marching home there would be civic leaders who weren't there and who had never been in war on that scale, or at all, who would tell him, and the other troops, and the civilians, what happened.

They would be certain. They would use phrases like "red badge of courage."

But Henry still might not really get what happened because the tone of his experience was different than the tone of the speeches and of the questions he was asked that might have been heavy on "tell me how glorious it was."

The Civil War went from 1861 to 1865. Stephen Crane was born in 1871, and had never been in a war when he wrote "The Red Badge of Courage" in 1891. People who had been in wars and studied wars, when the book came out and now, were impressed--sort of stunned--by how right what Crane wrote felt.

I think a Henry or two or three in the little town in New York he grew up in that was filled with Civil War veterans found in Crane someone who would actually listen to them. Listen to them all the way through. Listen to the doubts and confusion.

You don't have to say "Shut up!" to get someone to shut up. Tense up when they start saying words you don't want to hear. Hold on to what you believe about their experience in the face of hearing that that isn't what they believe about their experience.

I think maybe Crane the child and youth was willing to hear from the fighters things they hadn't been able to say. Which they hadn't been able to think all the way out because no one wanted to hear.

He also was influenced by Tolstoy and by a big collection of accounts from the top that everyone interested read--"Battles and Leaders of the Civil War."

He wrote "Battle and One Confused Regular Guy of the Civil War."

Tolstoy is great on the confusion of battles and the messiness. Tolstoy was also a man who had a very strong sense that life had meaning.

Crane didn't have that sense. He wrote a poem that goes, "A man said to the universe, 'I exist.' The universe replied, 'However, that does not create in me a sense of obligation.'" That tone is characteristic of his writing, but not of "The Red Badge of Courage." That tone is also almost the opposite of what Tolstoy believed--it's all one, and it means something

Crane wrote of war very matter-of-factly in "The Red Badge of Courage." Make of it what you will. I read it anti-war, but I'm like that. Theodore Roosevelt, who tended to love war as a genre, also loved "The Red Badge of Courage."

Crane wrote "The Red Badge of Courage" in ten days when he was twenty-one, the general age of the men he was writing about.

I imagine him remembering their eyes as they told their stories, including the parts they had almost never told, rarely thought about. He honored that they didn't think one think about their war. He took on telling it from the point-of-view of an essential participant in war, an unsophisticated, hopeful at first, confused later, youth.

Rah-rah and listening are different. I've read about popular and I've read about unpopular wars. I've never read where a veteral said something like, "When I got back, many people wanted to hear in detail exactly what I'd been through."

After popular wars, the vets sometimes speak of how the rah-rah is brief, and if you get home after the first rah period, you don't get much. People want to get on with things other than the war that is over. After unpopular wars, no rah-rah, and some people looking at you with their worst possible imagination of what you did.

So maybe after years of sort of telling the story, a man or two in upstate New York, where Stephen Crane lived when little, was confronted with the young person who, when they hinted a little at parts of their war they couldn't speak of, didn't tense up and shut them up, but conveyed, "Go on."

Clausawitz, the author of the still much read "On War," liked his thoughts and ideas about war. So do we all--or we've evolved ideas about war in general and the war we're thinking about now that fit with who were are and what we expect out of life.

These theories that fit us may not fit the experience of some one individual involved in a war. Shutting up that individual may be easy if that person has been frequently shut up. But how interesting to listen in a way that they can be accurate to what happened to them. How different if the perceptions of people actually involved in war were common, were part of what we all knew.

These perceptions would not be the same even for one war, or one group of people in the same place in one war--that's my theory. And if we let these perceptions out and about more and lived with them, we might make better decisions, as a group, about future war--or future not wars.

"Fifty-four forty or fight" was a popular US slogan about where the border with Canada in the west should be. It isn't. It's lower than that--there is more Canada and less US than there would be if that were the border.

There are people alive who are descendents of people wo didn't die in the "fifty-four forty or fight war" because that war didn't happen.

I think about the missing descendents of the war diers now and then, what they might have done if they'd existed.

Maybe somehow listening to what war survivors really have to say, the whole thing, might help there be more of those folks who descended from people who didn't die in war because we the humans didn't do that war--we found some other ways to heal the problems that might go to war. Our increased practice at listening and being able to hear other people's experiences that don't fit with our theories and fantasies might help. If when we talk about going to war, going to a specific war, our minds and hearts were filled with what specific people had told us about their specific experience of being in war, that would be different.