Soldier's Identity: The Influence of The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage and Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, provide two examples of the way trauma novels represent the experience of trauma. Henry Fleming and Billy Lynn, their respective protagonists, are similar characters in trauma novels. They are both young American men who are engaged in war for the United States military. Both are considered war heroes, and both have their own misgivings about that. Henry and Billy are influenced by their culture to view their military service in a particular way, but their views are different. For Henry, serving in the U.S. military makes him a man; for Billy, serving in the U.S. military makes it possible to avoid felony charges. Henry also believes in the cause for which he fights, but Billy does not understand the cause. Henry notes that the enemy seem like people just like him, but that view changes. Billy starts out with a dislike for the enemy, and develops sympathy for them. Both men suffer a traumatic experience that affects them, but the results of those affects are displayed differently by Crane and Fountain illustrating the different ways trauma novels can recreate the traumatic experience even though those who actually suffer from traumatic experiences often cannot explain what it is that traumatized them.
When Henry departs for war, he receives an emotional farewell from his mother, who has raised him to be a good person. She appears to be a good parent with no dysfunction; however, the same cannot be said for Billy’s family. There is plenty of dysfunction there with a father who after having a stroke and losing his voice and his livelihood as a rock and roll radio DJ, watches Fox News for hours on end and is hateful to his family. When Billy comes home from Iraq to Stovall, before his appearance at the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football game, his father barely acknowledges him. “You couldn’t please him, not if you happened to be his son, not even if you came home a national hero” (Fountain 78). Billy’s mother and sisters greet him with hugs and tears, but his father stays in the den watching Fox News. The culture from which Henry comes and that from which Billy comes lie in stark contrast to each other.
Initially, Henry encounters some of the enemy across a river and realizes that they are similar to himself. However, after having met them in battle, his opinion changes. “He had a wild hate for the relentless foe. Yesterday, when he had imagined the universe to be against him, he had hated it, little gods and big gods; today he hated the army of the foe with the same great hatred” (Crane Chap. 17). Billy hates the enemy initially because he comes from a society (the United States) that believes that the Iraqis had hidden weapons of mass destruction. However, when he plays with his toddler nephew, he realizes that some of the people the U.S. military was killing in Iraq were children his nephew’s age, Billy develops some sympathy for them.
Both Henry and Billy perform what are usually considered heroic actions, but that does not mean that they did not experience fear about meeting the enemy. Before battle, Henry wonders if he will be brave enough to face the enemy. “It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself” (Crane Chap. 1). His concern comes from living in the culture of the mid-nineteenth century that considered those who avoided military service cowards. When Henry first meets the enemy he fights valiantly, but becomes frightened and runs away. He believes he has proven, at least to himself, that he is a coward. However, he returns and becomes a hero through his own determination to fight on regardless of the consequences.
Billy lives in a society that values military service but he does not value it. He joins the military not out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of fear: he does not want to go to prison for vandalizing his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car. When he weighs the two options of military service or prison, he chooses the former thinking it will be less restrictive. When his sister asks if he dreads returning to Iraq he says, “It doesn’t matter what I feel about it. I’ve gotta go, so I’m going . . . . Nobody wants to go back. But it’s what you signed up for, so you go” (Fountain 96). On the battlefield, he struggles to make sense of the experiences he has in Iraq, especially when one of his squad mates dies. The horrors of what he has seen remain with him because of the trauma they cause. The memories occur and recur throughout the book, much like the typical experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Both protagonists have experiences in their respective novels that classify their novels as “trauma novels.” Michelle Balaev, writing in Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, says, “Trauma, in my analysis, refers to a person's emotional response to an overwhelming event that disrupts previous ideas of an individual's sense of self and the standards by which one evaluates society. The term ‘trauma novel’ refers to a work of fiction that conveys profound loss or intense fear on individual or collective levels” (Balaev 50). Billy experiences the trauma of war with the reaction that most people have to a traumatic event, PTSD. For example, during the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys football game, Billy and his squad mates are paraded onto the field during the Destiny’s Child performance. The fireworks and sounds of the celebration cause the men to experience the typical reaction colored by PTSD. “Then the explosions start and they all flinch, boom boom boom boom, lum rounds are shooting off from somewhere backstage, smokers that explode with the arid crackle of cluster bombs scattering over a wheat field . . . . If there was ever a prime-time trigger for PTSD you couldn’t do much better than this” (Fountain 230). Billy and the other Bravo squad members recall the sounds of war when they hear the booms. They do not see the experience as an opportunity to appear brave and win acknowledgement from others. They see war in terms of survival and following orders.
In The Red Bad of Courage, Henry also understands that soldiers follow orders. He does not jump at the sound of gun or cannon fire. Instead he gains a new sense of courage. “He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part--a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country--was in crisis. . . . For some moments he could not flee no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand” (Crane Chap 5). Henry goes on to perform heroic deeds, leading the band of soldiers with the flag, but this is a different Henry than the one who, at the beginning of the novel, wonders whether he will run when confronted with the enemy. Perhaps, Henry and The Red Badge of Courage are examples of the way a character affected by trauma views society differently after the event that Balaev mentions. Billy does not really see society differently, but he does view himself in an entirely different light.
While Henry’s experience seems more positive, it is also a drastic change to his personality. Instead of the good boy his mother sent to war, he is considered a war demon ready to kill on command. Billy is not that kind of soldier. He knew he would be afraid. He just did what he had to do to survive, and in the eyes of his society, that made him a hero. The trauma affects him more negatively than Henry, but the wars the two men fight have different purposes and they come from different societies.
Balaev, Michelle. "Trends in Literary Trauma Theory." Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 41.2 (2008): 149-166. JSTOR. 26 September 2019. < https://www.jstor.org/stable/4... >.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Bad of Courage. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Press, 1894. Project Gutenberg. 26 September 2019. < https://www.gutenberg.org/file... >.
Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. New York City: Harper Collins, 2012. E-book. 27 September 2019. < https://read.amazon.com/?asin=... >.