The Retreat Of The Mule Drivers:

“It was the dominant animal failing to remember in the supreme moments the forceful causes of various superficial qualities. The whole affair seemed incomprehensible to many of them.”

Clever minds have argued for over a century about the themes in Stephen Crane’s brilliant novel ‘The Red Badge Of Courage. I was in my senior year of high-school when my English teacher introduced me to this novel. I wrote a compare and contrast essay between ‘The Red Badge Of Courage’ and ‘All Quiet on The Western Front’. Both are brilliant books, written by brilliant authors, comparatively analyzed by a vaguely interested and just barely invested eighteen year old Oskar. But my insights and skill are not what’s important. What’s important is that like the books’ protagonist, Henry Flemming, I was at a very similar crossroad in the narrative of my own life when I turned to the pages of this book.

I resolved near the end of eleventh grade to join the military after high-school. That goal remains unaccomplished – for better or for worse. When I read this book, in the vaguely interested and just barely invested manner I approached everything academic when I was eighteen, I identified immediately with Henry. Given that I read it lightly over the course of a few months, and by virtue of my insouciance, hadn’t sharpened my critical skills, I was oblivious to the more subtle and nuanced meanings I find beautiful and astonishing now. But in a very post-modern affirming ‘authors don’t even matter’ type of way, I unconsciously digested some important themes and learned from the books experience as if I was actually there with the Tall Soldier when he passed, and carrying the flag through the fray.

The psychology of those later years in high-school for me was very similar to the psychology of the young soldier at war.

“It was the dominant animal failing to remember in the supreme moments the forceful causes of various superficial qualities. The whole affair seemed incomprehensible to many of them.”

Thank god I didn’t have to go to war. I would have been Henry. In high-school I had gotten into a few fights – again, in the last year. Both times defending someone’s honor, and both times with a “temporary but sublime absence of selfishness”. Like Henry it took a revenge upon my failures, plenty of unsolved dissonance, and the guiding invisible hand of the social institution for me to find anything resembling conciliatory strength.“It had begun to seem to them that events were trying to prove that they were impotent. These little battles had evidently endeavored to demonstrate that the men could not fight well. When on the verge of submission to these opinions, the small duel had showed them that the proportions were not impossible, and by it they had revenged themselves upon their misgivings and upon the foe.” I hadn’t actually achieved anything of significance when I fought, I hadn’t grown mature. Because there is no ultimate significance in fighting – the kind of significance that continues to exist beyond the death of the fighters, and in-spite of the death of the fighters; like there’s something of fighting, some religious quality, of ultimate importance to people. And you cannot grow mature by an experience alone, and just without the span of time of that experience. But I was a man.

But when I read the book it gave me hope and confidence. I was afraid of my own fear, and of others discovering that fear; like Henry. A superficial reading of the book tells a story of a young soldier who transforms himself from coward to war-god. I felt tremendously comforted when Henry talked about his own fear of running from battle, and his own fear of cowardice (like he had). I saw myself in him, and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me when he became brave. Obviously there is much more to the book than that, and obviously that’s a misinterpretation of the chronological story of his transformation. But for me, at that time in my life, I fell in love with this book.

I just finished reading it a few hours ago; I started reading on Wednesday. This time I promised myself I would really read it; to pay attention not only to the themes, but to the diction, the semantics, and the progression of ideas sentence-to-paragraph. Reading this way I discovered a whole different landscape – a whole different world. (I’m writing a more in-depth essay with some of these ideas.) Where I once saw hope I now see ignorance. Where I saw the heroic transformation of a character, I see a critical exploration of patriotism, tradition, of the human experience not just in war but as a social agent in war (and how social norms change little in war time). You can read a book again and again and depending on your state of mind, or even just where you find yourself in your own narrative, find a new interpretation. Some see the real-life exploration of war (without the ‘Greek-like struggle’) and wars’ effects on soldiers as the genius of the book. Some see the exploration of courage and maturity, and natures indifference to ‘machine men’ as the books genius. I agree, but I think there’s a genius hidden within those major themes.

The title of this post might read confusingly unless you’ve read the book, and read it critically. It’s a minor line said within a major scene containing major plot points; its easily skim-over-able. But it resonated with me. The context of the quote is basically that Henry overhears a general say to some officers that the men of his regiment are nothing more than mule drivers. Contrary to some interpretations of the term, a mule-driver in the context of the Civil war was an epithet. Mule-drivers were usually slaves, they were the cannon fodder; they transported goods, and had no value in battle save as human shields. The Regiment Henry was a part of were not very skilled (this is one of the major points in the plot of the entire novel, and upon which many important themes are built). Anyways, near the end of the book, at the turning point of his arch, where he ‘transforms’ from coward to hero, he overhears a general call him a mule-driver. It was anger, fury, hatred that drove him to overcome his enemy, to hold his ground, in battle. He was willing to sacrifice his life hoping that by some grand act of bravery he could witness remorse and guilt spread across this generals face. It wasn’t some grand character transformation predicated on a philosophical epiphany concerning the essence of man that made him finally become the antithesis of his most private fears, but the strains of battle and hatred of being a soldier – and of being a dispensable soldier. When his regiment lost ground he felt shame – the retreat of the mule drivers. I have been trying to prove, by discovering fundamental truths about the human condition, my value to, philosophically and morally shallow, people who consider me nothing more than a mule-driver. I have been doing what Henry was doing in this novel for over 23 years. Feeling shame for retreating from proving ‘them’ wrong.

No one knows for certain if they’re doing things right; not the General, Not the antebellum or heroic Henry, not the Tall Soldier, not My mom and not Me. I’m not so certain I necessarily learned something concrete about ‘how’ to exist and ‘why’ to exist that way from this book. But the re-reading six years after the first skim has opened up a new set of questions to be answered, and my own experiences as a mule-driver have shown me a new way to answer them. This kind of goes against the rules of critically analyzing literature, but one word of advice: If someone says something about you, or to you, that devastates you to your core, let them go. Don’t spend time like I did trying to find some way to bring them to a state of guilt. The power they may appear to have is illusory; they’re a person, precisely like you. And if they call you a mule-driver then they are farther from wisdom than you are, and have nothing to offer you worth your life. Life is precious; your life, and theirs. And its that landscape, that territory I found myself in re-reading this book again at the ripe old age of twenty four. It’s a confusing but exciting place.


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