This year I decided, in anticipation of the July 4th holiday, and with the conflict in Ukraine on my mind, to do some reading about wartime heroism and bravery. I had read through some of Stephen Crane’s works over the winter, including his biography, so decided to tackle his classic novel, “The Red Badge of Courage”, as my war fiction read and, for a more current, nonfiction military account, “Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II” by Alex Kershaw. I started with Crane and finished on July 4th with Kershaw. Crane was a bit difficult and without the footnotes in the Oxford World Classics edition, I would have had difficulty with some of the references taken from contemporary Civil War sources. Crane penned this incredible book of man’s destiny in war in 1895.
Four American heroes of WW II are the subjects of Kershaw’s book. This book was faster reading, with vivid, detailed accounts of the heroic actions of the soldiers highlighted in the book – Audie Murphy, Keith Ware, Maurice Britt and Michael Daly – set against the backdrop of Hitler’s relentless, destructive efforts to thwart the U.S. invasion Europe. Each of these soldiers earned multiple medals for bravery. Each earned their their own “red badge of courage” i.e. wound from battle. Their stories of heroism leave an indelible impression.
I ask myself why I am drawn to read certain books and authors. In Crane’s case, my interest was aroused by a review in one of the many book-related publications to which I subscribe, of a recent Crane biography by Linda Davis. After that I was inspired to read his work, and started with his short stories. When I picked up “The Red Badge of Courage,” I quickly realized I had read it once before, in college as part of my American Studies program. I recalled very little of it, remembering more of the scenes from a movie version which we also watched in the class. It was like reading it anew. Crane was an exceptional writer who had only one trick pony so to speak. Red Badge was it, and Crane was recognized after publishing it, but he died young without another full-length book to his credit. Many of his short stories are book beginnings. Crane was a war correspondent and bravely covered various wars and skirmishes for several newspapers and magazines. The Civil War was the great conflict of the time, but Crane, a generation removed from the action, was late to the rodeo. Instead, he wrote The Red Badge of Courage about the war hero he wished to be. Kershaw focuses on the heroic acts that pushedHitler’s armies back to Germany, as well as the lives lost and the souls beyond repair after the war ended.
My interest in both these books and particularly the significance of reading them during the July 4th holiday was to give context to the bravery and heroism we see today. We might consider brave soldiers those public figures, activists and people who do battle to heal the divisions in our society and—most importantly to me—those who fight to preserve our democracy as did the heroes of WWIl. I read daily reports from the war in Ukraine, the stories of selflessness and dedication to the cause. These men and woman are fighting for Ukraine’s independent democracy. Here in the U.S., we battle to preserve the freedom to make our own decisions as to whom we elect to higher office, for the freedom to make our own decisions as to whom we marry and the freedom to control our own bodies. The heroes in our country today are those brave souls who fight for the rights of everyone to be their own person and true to their own values.