Saturday, May 27, 2017

May 27: Book to Read, Dirty and Tired and Wounded, Heroes

Billy was put to bed and tied down, and given a shot of morphine.  Another American volunteered to watch over him.  This volunteer was Edgar Derby, the high school teacher who would be shot to death in Dresden.  So it goes.

Derby sat on a three-legged stool.  He was given a book to read.  The book was The Red Badge of Courrage, by Stephen Crane.  Derby had read it before.  Now he read it again while Billy Pilgrim entered a morphine paradise.

Sitting in a prisoner of war camp, next to Billy Pilgrim, who is now quietly having a nervous breakdown in a morphine cloud, Edgar Derby is given The Red Badge of Courage to preoccupy himself.  Of course, I would think it would be hard to take your mind off war by reading a book about war.

Of course, Stephen Crane's book is about a young man who is struggling with an impulse to flee from battle, desert his regiment, and run for peace and safety.  At one point in the story, that's exactly what Henry, the main character, does.  Eventually, he returns and marches into battle as a flag bearer.  I'll never forget the last few paragraphs of the book:

It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, an existence of soft and eternal peace. 

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
It's not a pretty picture.  Union and captured soldiers marching along, dirty and tired and wounded.  Crane, just like Vonnegut, does not glorify war in any way.  It's brutal and terrifying, and everyone involved yearns for one thing--"tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, and existence of soft and eternal peace."  Crane wrote about the American Civil War.  Vonnegut is writing about World War II.  Nobody would argue with the fact that both of these wars were fought for just and noble purposes.  Yet, there is still blood and pain and loss.  Brothers and fathers and sons and daughters and mothers and sisters never returning home.

That is the reality of armed conflict.  Terror and grief.  I'm not saying that sometimes there aren't justifiable reasons for war.  Slavery.  Genocide.  Incredible violations of human rights.  Threats to world peace.  And there are brave men and women from countries all over the world who have or will endure the red sickness of battle for people they will never know.  That is an amazing thing.

As I said last night, I am not a fan of nationalism.  I believe in peace and acceptance and compassion.  Always.  But I am also amazed by people who are willing to put their lives on the line for others.  Police officers.  Firefighters.  Soldiers.  Missionaries.  These people are true heroes in my eyes.  As it says in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

Saint Marty is thankful for these heroes today.

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