The Red Badge of Courage

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The War Machine Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Courage Theme Icon
The War Machine Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Red Badge of Courage, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The War Machine Theme Icon

Red Badge uses the language of machines, labor, and industry to describe war. In contrast, Henry dreams about a classical idealized kind of war. But that kind of romanticized war, emphasizing heroic action, is a thing of the fictional past: it has no relation to an industrial war such as the Civil War, in which individual soldiers become cogs in a much larger machine. As Red Badge reveals, the war machine is designed to move massive armies and churn out corpses. (Machine guns were used for the first time in the Civil War.) Machines are unsympathetic, unthinking, and impersonal, and the war machine makes Henry's hopes for personal glory seem pathetic, even tragic. Crane also uses the theme of a mechanized war to make a grim comment on the industrialism of the late 19th century and its dehumanizing effect on laborers.

The War Machine ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The War Machine appears in each chapter of The Red Badge of Courage. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The War Machine Quotes in The Red Badge of Courage

Below you will find the important quotes in The Red Badge of Courage related to the theme of The War Machine.
Chapter 1 Quotes
He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 5-6
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Henry Fleming, a young man who feels a strong desire to fight in the war with the Southern states of the Union. Henry has been brought up to believe in the timeless code of honor and heroism--to be a mature man, he believes, is to be willing to fight for one's country and sacrifice one's life when necessary. Henry has developed such a philosophy over years of reading books, such as the ancient Greek epics of Homer, and also reading newspaper stories about the military's clashes with its opponents.

Henry is at once hopelessly naive and desperate to become a man. He thinks that manhood is a question of bravery and courage--and yet he naively thinks that he'll be able to prove his manhood as soon as he arrives on the battlefield, not realizing how distinctly "unheroic" and dehumanizing modern warfare has become.

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Chapter 4 Quotes
The battle reflection that shone for an instant in the faces on the mad current made the youth feel that forceful hands from heaven would not have been able to have held him in place if he could have got intelligent control of his legs.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry is in the midst of a battle. He's surrounded by danger--indeed, many of his fellow soldiers have turned and run away from the oncoming Confederate troops. And yet Henry doesn't run. He's frightened by what he sees, and yet he continues to stay and watch the enemy soldiers march toward him.

Is Henry being brave in this scene? Crane suggests exactly the opposite--Henry would be running from the Confederate danger, except that he's paralyzed with fear (a good example of the "flight or fight" reaction). In general, then, the passage underscores the reality that courage cannot be measured in any concrete, external way. Henry's behavior might look like bravery to an outside observer, but in reality Henry is just as afraid as the troops that are running away.

Chapter 5 Quotes
Directly he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair. He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. ... He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

"Not a man but a member" is arguably the most important phrase in the entire book. As the novel begins, Henry is an optimistic youth, full of idealistic theories of honor and courage. But as we move on, Henry begins to feel less and less like a human being--he feels himself becoming a cog in the vast "war machine" of the Union. Here, Henry is caught in the middle of battle, and feels a sudden eerie calm as he begins to merge with his own weapon and the other soldiers around him.

The passage is interesting because of the similarities it draws between Henry and his gun. Henry, like the gun itself, is just a "tool"; in the same way that Henry manipulates his gun, generals manipulate Henry. Crane suggests that the rise of industrialization in America in the second half of the 19th century created an environment in which human beings became "industrialized," too--i.e., in which they were treated as disposable objects to be sent to their deaths in battle.

Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this gory passage, Crane describes the dead bodies of Henry's fellow soldiers. The soldiers aren't the least bit dignified or impressive in death--rather, they look like they've fallen from a great height (suggesting that their bodies have been horribly mangled during the fighting).

Up to this point, Henry has still believed in the romanticized idea of glory and honor in battle. But now that he's confronted with the sight of grotesque human corpses, he fully grasps the horrors of war. War isn't an opportunity for glory or lasting fame; on the contrary, the soldiers who die in battle become anonymous corpses, no different from all the other death around them. Nothing could be further from the idealistic love of war with which Henry began his time in the army.

Chapter 6 Quotes
Into the youth's eyes there came a look that one can see in the orbs of a jaded horse. His neck was quivering with nervous weakness and the muscles of his arms felt numb and bloodless. His hands, too, seemed large and awkward as if he was wearing invisible mittens. And there was a great uncertainty about his knee joints.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry has already fought battle, "bravely" standing against his Confederate opponents. But when the Confederates come back again, Henry suddenly feels weak and frightened. He's withstood his first challenge as a soldier, but now that he has a second opportunity to prove his bravery, he sees the utter futility of bravery itself. Fear seems to break down Henry's entire body: Crane describes him as an old, "jaded horse" whose knees and arms are slowly losing all their strength.

The individual is meaningless in battle: a single soldier like Henry will merely be worked again and again until his body gives out, or until he's murdered by a Confederate opponent. In all, Crane uses the passage to convey the total dehumanization of war.

Chapter 7 Quotes
He had fled, he told himself, because annihilation approached. He had done a good part in saving himself, who was a little piece of the army. ... It was all plain that he had proceeded according to very correct and commendable rules. His actions had been sagacious things. They had been full of strategy. They were the work of a master's legs.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Henry has just deserted his army--he's been so frightened by the arrival of more Confederate troops that he's run away from the fighting altogether. Here, safe from battle for a moment, Henry tries to justify his own actions. There was no chance that he could have survived the fight, he tells himself--the very futility of the battle is proof that running away was the logical thing, and even the "right thing," as he'll live to fight for his army again.

Henry's thought process is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it reminds us how childish his ideas about chivalry and bravery were--almost as soon as he found himself in an actual battle, his bravery failed him altogether. Furthermore, Henry's rationalizations of cowardice show him thinking in terms of individualism; in other words, he justifies his behavior by arguing that protecting his own life is the highest good. Henry's hypocrisy, of course, is that he's trying to pretend that he made a "choice" to run away. In reality, Henry didn't choose to run at all--his desertion was practically an involuntary reaction, in which logic played no part. Crane doesn't condemn Henry's actions, but he notes Henry's frantic rationalizations, too.

Chapter 8 Quotes
The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Corpses
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

As the battle goes on, Crane reiterates his shocking, industrial imagery. The fight, we're told, sounds like a huge, "grinding" machine--a machine for which, we can guess, individual lives don't count for anything. The war itself, we should recognize, is practically a character in the book--an autonomous destructive force that transcends (and sneers at) all political affiliations.

And yet Henry is eerily attracted to the spectacle of battle, in spite of all the horrors he's seen lately. War is a drug, it's often said: fighting is grim and terrifying, but also surprisingly addictive. Henry, still a young, impressionable youth, seems hypnotized by the slaughter of the war--thus, he goes back into the fray.

Chapter 12 Quotes
The fight was lost. The dragons were coming with invincible strides. The army, helpless in the matted thickets and blinded by the overhanging night, was going to be swallowed. War, the red animal, war, the blood swollen god, would have bloated fill.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Wounds
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this vivid passage, Henry faces the horrors of war once again. The passage is a great example of how Crane casts war as a character in its own right, independent of all political and ideological conflicts. War is like a wild animal, hungry for dead bodies and blood. By personifying war itself, Crane reiterates the point that war destroys both sides: for all the lofty ideals of the Union and Confederate troops, both sides will be equally devastated by the conflict. While in this particular case it's the Union troops who are under attack, Crane makes it clear enough that the Confederate soldiers will be "swallowed up" themselves sooner or later--the "red animal" of war doesn't play favorites.

Chapter 13 Quotes
"Yeh've been grazed by a ball. It's raised a queer lump jest as if some feller had lammed yeh on th' head with a club."
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Related Symbols: Wounds
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Henry comes to realize that the wound he sustained from the butt of a rifle is being interpreted as a gunshot wound--i..e, a sign of genuine courage. Henry finally has the "Red badge" he's been craving--an outward sign of his bravery.

As the passage makes clear, Henry continues to feel some guilt about his cowardice. Even though the other soldiers perceive his injury as a gunshot wound, they acknowledge that it looks like he's been clubbed (which, in fact, he has). Henry seems close to being found-out--his wound fools the other soldiers, but just barely. In all, the passage reinforces the point that there can be no external proof of bravery--even if other people regard you as a hero because of your wounds, true bravery comes from within.

Chapter 17 Quotes
It was revealed to him that he had been a barbarian, a beast. He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion. Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy. ... [H]e was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process. He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Crane illustrates the shallowness of heroism. Henry has been firing his gun with great energy and intensity--he's in the midst of a great battle, yet he's also in something like a trance state. Delirious with fear, Henry doesn't realize that he's firing his gun at all--as a result, Henry continues firing long after the enemy has retreated. Henry's peers interpret his actions as heroic, and applaud his courage.

The shallowness of Henry's heroism is overwhelmingly obvious--Henry didn't even realize that he was being heroic; he has to be told that he was acting like a "barbarian." The irony is that Henry has aspired to be recognized for his bravery--now that his dream has come true, he's too dissociated to enjoy it, and disappointed by how "easy" it was. Henry is still very much a young, immature man, but here he learns yet another lesson about the nature of courage and heroism.

Chapter 21 Quotes
He discovered that the distances, as compared with the brilliant measurings of his mind, were trivial and ridiculous. The stolid trees, where much had taken place, seemed incredibly near. The time, too, now that he reflected, he saw to have been short. He wondered at the number of emotions and events that had been crowded into such little spaces.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

Crane conveys a sense of utter futility here. The Union soldiers, including Henry, have just won what they think of as a great victory--happy with themselves, they march back to their fellow soldiers, where they learn that they should have kept marching forward. Although Henry and his peers had thought that they'd covered a great distance during the battle, claiming a great deal of land for their side, the reality is that they've barely covered any distance at all. Henry comes to realize that he's been too idealistic and Romantic in his thinking--while he thought of himself as having achieved great victories in battle, he now realizes that his victories have been comically trivial, just a drop in the bucket.

The passage is important because it shows Henry developing a measure of self-awareness. He's coming to see through his own idealism and pseudo-heroism--the truth, he recognizes, is that he's just a meaningless cog in the war machine.

Chapter 22 Quotes
A spluttering sound had begun in the woods. It swelled with amazing speed to a profound clamor that involved the earth in noises. The splitting crashes swept along the lines until an interminable roar was developed. To those in the midst of it it became a din fitted to the universe. It was the whirring and thumping of gigantic machinery, complications among the smaller stars.
Related Characters: Henry Fleming (the youth)
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry prepares for another battle, and as it begins, the noise of gunfire becomes almost deafening. Crane describes the noise of the battle as a "spluttering sound," suggesting the chaos of the scene. Furthermore, he compares the sound to a huge, whirring machine. Crane has compared a battle to a machine in the past--but here, the "thumping" machinery threatens to swallow Henry and his peers up indiscriminately.

The horrors of war are so vast that Henry has needed to believe in the fairy tales of courage and chivalry--if he didn't have beliefs to comfort him, he could have been crushed under the sheer terror of the Civil War. Now that Henry is a more experienced soldier, he's coming to recognize the war for what it really is--a chaotic, "whirring" storm, both huge and meaningless.