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War, violence, shooting, death. War, violence, shooting, death. Repeat.
That pretty much sums up a whole lot of Stephen Crane's writing. His most famous work is The Red Badge of Courage, a short novella about the American Civil War that has some pretty gruesome stuff in it. And even though Crane was a literary renaissance man—he dabbled in short fiction, journalism, and poetry—war is a constant theme in much of his work. He even worked as a war correspondent in the 1890s, first during a short war in 1897 known as the Greco-Turkish War (sometimes called The Greco-Turkish Conflict), and later during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Crane's experiences on the front lines in Greece (1897) and later in Cuba (1898) inspired both another war novella (Active Service, published in 1899,) and the famous poem "War Is Kind," which was also published in 1899 in a volume entitled War Is Kind and Other Lines.
As you may have guessed, "War Is Kind" isn't about how war is kind, but the exact opposite: how war is just about the rudest, most awful thing ever. The poem offers a disturbing and scathing critique of war, the patriotism that inspires it, and the people who conduct it. All war does is cause death and destruction: maidens lose their loves, babies their fathers, mothers their sons. And according to Crane, the whole cruel industry is the way it is because military leaders (like the guy who speaks the second and fourth stanzas) see their soldiers as dehumanized cogs in a giant killing machine, "born" only "to drill and die."
After a thorough consideration of your application, we regret to inform you that we cannot offer you admission to Imaginary University. We receive many excellent applications, and simply cannot accommodate everyone. We wish you the best.
The Nameless, Faceless Stooges Who Decide Your Very Future
Well that's kind of cold isn't it? Sounds like a lot of hogwash too—totally insensitive, totally unsympathetic. Whoever said admissions committees care was W-R-O-N-G.
"War Is Kind" is about a different, but just as insensitive, group of people. The odd-numbered stanzas show the speaker talking to a maiden, a babe, and a mother, and telling them that important men in their lives have died. And guess what? The speaker sounds just like whoever writes those cold rejection form letters. All he does is talk about what happened to the men, and then reiterate some clichés about how war is kind and they shouldn't be upset. Yeah, just like you shouldn't be upset about getting rejected from Stanford. Sure, dude.
Elsewhere in the poem, it's the same thing. When he talks about his soldiers, he all but says they're there to die and that's it ("born to drill and die," 8). He doesn't care about them, just like he doesn't seem to care about the people he talks to in stanzas 1, 3, and 5. The difference is, when it comes to the soldiers he's not just being a jerk but actually sending them to their deaths, and not always for the most explainable of reasons.
The poem's most powerful argument, then, is that being sensitive matters. A lot. Seeing people as people—and not just as idiots born to die or expected to believe that war is kind—is an important step towards making sure wars don't happen, and making sure that those who wage wars see their soldiers and their families as real people with real feelings and real lives.
All About Crane
Here's a short biography of Stephen Crane, if you want to get in, get out, and get the lowdown.
Check out the Stephen Crane House in New Jersey, where he once lived.
Crane the Correspondent
Here's a site about the Spanish-American War, which Crane covered as a correspondent. We're betting that played a big role in his writing poems like "War Is Kind."
Listen to the poem read aloud to images of war, with the Pearl Harbor soundtrack in the background, to make things extra cheesy.
Hear it All Right Here
Check out this reading of not just the poem but also of the whole volume that contained the poem, War Is Kind and Other Lines.
Why So Serious Steve?
Here's your new favorite poet with your new favorite mustache.
Crane's Old Haunt
Check out the house where Crane spent a large part of his life.
Crane the Baseballer
America's favorite pastime was also one of Crane's favorite pastimes.
Crane Reports from the Front Lines
Here are some excerpts from Crane's war correspondence, so you can get a feel for his real life experiences.
Mr. Nice Guy
The great novelist Joseph Conrad recounts how Crane gave his (Conrad's) son a dog.
The Whole Kit and Kaboodle
Check out the online version of the entire volume of poems in which "War Is Kind" appeared.