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Friday, May 25, 2012

This Memorial Day -- War Is Kind

Do Not Weep, Maiden, For War Is Kind  

-Stephen Crane

"Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

"Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom --
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

"Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

"Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

"Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind."

Steven Crane

Steven Crane (November 1, 1871 – June 5, 1900) was an American novelist, short story writer, poet and journalist. He is recognized by modern critics as one of the most innovative writers of his generation.He was born in Newark, New Jersey, the 14th child (the eighth surviving child) of a Methodist minister and his wife.

Crane began writing at the age of four and had published several articles by the age of 16.

Crane studied at Lafayette College and Syracuse University. After his mother's death in 1890 - his father had died earlier - Crane left school and moved to New York in 1891. There, he began work as a reporter and writer for the Bachellor-Johnson newspaper syndicate.While supporting himself by his pen, he lived among the poor in the Bowery slums to research his first novel -- the 1893 Bowery tale Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which critics generally consider the first work of American literary Naturalism.

Crane won international acclaim for his 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, which he wrote without any battle experience.

In The Red Badge of Courage, the main character both longs for the heroics of battle but ultimately fears it, demonstrating the dichotomy of courage and cowardice. He experiences the threat of death, misery and a loss of self.

From the beginning of Red Badge, Crane wished to show what it felt like to be in a war by writing "a psychological portrayal of fear." Conceiving his story from the point of view of a young private who is at first filled with boyish dreams of the glory of war and then quickly becomes disillusioned by the reality of war, Crane borrowed the private's surname, "Fleming", from his sister-in-law's maiden name.

He would later relate that the first paragraphs came to him with "every word in place, every comma, every period fixed." Working mostly nights, he wrote from around midnight until four or five in the morning. Because he could not afford a typewriter, he wrote carefully in ink on legal-sized paper, seldom crossing through or interlining a word. If he did change something, he would rewrite the whole page.

At the appearance of Red Badge in 1893, Crane was just twenty-one. His manuscript was turned down by the publishers, who considered its realism too "ugly." Crane had to print the book at his own expense, borrowing the money from his brother. In its inscription Crane warned that "it is inevitable that you be greatly shocked by this book but continue, please, with all possible courage to the end."

In England readers believed that the book was written by a veteran soldier - the text was so believable. Crane dismissed this theory by saying that he got his ideas from the football field.

In 1896, Crane accepted an offer to cover the Spanish-American War as a war correspondent.

As he waited in Jacksonville, Florida for passage to Cuba, he met Cora Taylor, the madam of a brothel, with whom he would have a lasting relationship.While en route to Cuba, Crane's ship sank off the coast of Florida, leaving him adrift for several days in a dinghy. His ordeal was later described in "The Open Boat."

During the final years of his life, he covered conflicts in Greece and lived in England, where he befriended writers such as Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells. Plagued by financial difficulties and ill health, Crane died of tuberculosis in a Black Forest sanatorium at the age of 28.

The Poem

“War is Kind” is the first poem of Stephen Crane’s second collection of poems, War is Kind and Other Lines, published in 1899, less than a year before he died. The poem is sometimes referred to by its first line, “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.”

The subject of the poem is war and its effects. In this way it echoes the stories and scenes from Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

Though Crane had been turned down because of poor health when he volunteered to enlist in the U.S. Navy, he saw his share of war and death as a journalist while covering conflicts in Greece, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Spain. He uses his experience to create realistic images of battle.

The title of the poem sets its satirical tone, as it is very difficult to imagine war being kind in any way.

The pattern of the poem features a direct address to three groups most tragically affected by death in war: lovers, children, and mothers. The speaker seems to be trying to comfort each group. But, after devoting a graphic stanza (black) that captures the realistic nature of a "glorious" death in battle, Crane affixes the cynical, ironic statement "War is kind."

In Greek tragedies the chorus comments, as a narrator might, on characters and events, frequently making moral judgements about them. Crane seems to employ this same technique of asides with the italicized (blue) stanzas.

The stanzas in italics address the reader of the poem or perhaps even the soldier, himself. The narrator explains that men fighting in war are destined to die, but there is some "unexplained glory" about their dying -- perhaps a larger virtue they are defending. Later, the narrator explains that soldiers must be made to understand that killing large groups of an enemy is honorable -- a just result of their "excellent" work.

The theme, of course, deals with the duality of war as it relates to glory and to loved ones. This poem displays the vast difference between fantasy -- the view of a patriotic, antiseptic war full of glory --and reality --the unimaginable horrors and death resulting from a savage conflict. It is absurd to think there is anything glorious about killing and death.

In this poem, Crane questions whether or not war is ever really worth anything to anybody. He clearly does not think so, considering the level of sarcasm he uses throughout the poem. Lines in the poem underscore the senselessness of war and also touch on Crane’s attitude towards the stupidity and insidiousness of the military: "Little souls" convinced of "the virtue of slaughter" and entering "the great kingdom of the battle god where a thousand corpses lie."

Crane's deterministic philosophy, a feature of naturalism, is evident in the graphic ways he represents the soldiers' deaths. As bullets, shrapnel, and poison gas do not discriminate among their victims, the warriors die alone, fearful and full of rage.

People, in general, often ignore or politically justify the human costs of war. Combat veterans who do speak of the experience usually decry war and its terrible carnage. Even when war seems necessary and justified, the toll of lives is excessive and exceedingly brutal: souls are ripped apart,  bodies are torn and hearts are shattered.

Realistic War: Looking Back In Literature

The purpose of war is killing, and the act of killing can create a twisted mindset of unspeakable proportions. Consider Achilles, the great Greek hero of the Trojan War, and his exploits in The Iliad.

When Achilles' friend Patroklos is killed, he enters a state of berserk rage that is eerily akin to that experienced by numerous soldiers in Vietnam: a state of merciless, murderous inhumanity, accompanied by delusions of invulnerability and immortality.

Deranged by grief, Achilles first tries to commit suicide. He then refuses food. When he returns to battle, he commits atrocities, something he has never done before. Even by the standards of The Iliad, his killing spree is grotesque. He cannot sleep or eat; he thinks only of killing: "what I really crave / is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men."

Achilles slakes his bloodthirst by felling men, by filling the waters of the Scamander so full of bodies and gore that the river deity himself rises up from the depths in anger. It is "all day permanent red," to borrow the memorable title of one of ­Christopher Logue's ­poetic reimaginings of The Iliad. (Charlotte Higgins, "The Iliad and What It Can Still Tell Us About War," The Guardian, January 29 2010)

He cuts the throats of 12 Trojan captives, to serve as a death-sacrifice in honor of Patroklos. When his enemy Hektor begs for mercy, Achilles answers him with homicidal scorn:

"Hektor, I'll have no talk of pacts with you . . .
"As between men and lions there are none,
"No concord between wolves and sheep, but all
"Hold one another hateful through and through . . . ." (Iliad; 20; 308ff)

Boston psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has written a compassionate new book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (Atheneum, 1994), after hearing many confessions of Vietnam veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Shay found veterans who had behaved in much the same way as Achilles. The ghastly mind-set that led to incidents like the My Lai massacre shows up here in a red glare of rage:

"I became a f-----g animal," a veteran confessed. "I started f-----g putting f-----g heads on poles. Leaving f-----g notes for the motherf-----s. Digging up f-----g graves. I didn't give a f--k any more .... They wanted a f-----g hero so I gave it to them. They wanted f-----g body count, so I gave them body count. I hope they're f-----g happy. But they don't have to live with it. I do."

Homer's gods, powerful and invulnerable, are likened in Shay's book to "Great Leaders in the Sky," a term of scorn used by ordinary soldiers to describe the braided and bemedaled colonels and generals who surveyed the battle from safe helicopters high aloft, or who sat in headquarters hundreds of miles away, issuing Olympian orders over the radio, sketching the war with grease pencils on Plexiglas maps in air-conditioned rooms.

A recent Defense Department survey has concluded that at least 250,000 Vietnam veterans manifest the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to a greater or lesser extent. Some 40 percent of all veterans from that war reported engaging in violent acts three or more times in the previous year. Between 10-25 percent of all males in prison are veterans. (Michael Browning, Achilles' Wrath And the Vietnam War,"The Seattle Times, May 25 2012)

In the end, Achilles recognizes death as “the great equalizer” that will make even him, the timeless warrior hero; equal to the lowliest Trojan soldiers he has killed. Achilles also realizes that all of his time and kleos (A Greek hero earns kleos, "renown" or "glory"" through accomplishing great deeds, often through his own death.) will inevitably be lost, and then Achilles begins to question whether the war is worth fighting for the Greeks.    

Stephen Crane

This Memorial Day

This Memorial Day 2012, let's remember our fallen heroes. But, let's also consider the inglorious nature of war. Thanks to classic pieces of literature such as "War Is Kind" and The Illiad, and thanks to gifted authors like Stephen Crane and Jonathan Shay, we may see the dark reality of enmity in armed conflict.

As we Americans celebrate Memorial Day and ALL it means, we must realize the flags we salute and the memorials we place are not symbols of glorious deeds but rather reminders of our country's never-ending dedication to peace and liberty. Our history is not free of those who have practiced the immorality of war. We can accept this and stop future incidents of depraved brutality fueled by money and political deception.

We should consider the price of war with a soldier's understanding. And, we must vow to never fight unless the cause is just and is the last resort to preserving our nation. This Memorial Day, as we mourn those lost in war, we must also consider the precious lives of our living sons and daughters. So, we need to pray for peace and an end to man's inhumanity against man. May we all have a clearer understanding of the true nature of war. May we help all those veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"War Is Kind"  Video by Meg Michelena

"War Is Kind" Sung by Jakob Dylan

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