He suddenly lost concern for himself . . . He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire.
After a tense wait, the enemy soldiers attack and Henry’s regiment begins to fire upon them. The captain stands behind Henry’s regiment shouting instructions. As he faces the threat of the advancing troops, Henry loses his sense of being a lone, miserable outcast and begins to conceive of himself as a single cog in a machine. The battle overshadows his individuality by making him one with his fellow soldiers, just as the instinct to fight overcomes his timid, intellectual musings. The battle rages and Henry fires and reloads, fires and reloads, in a continuing, automatic rhythm. A “red rage” overtakes the men, who chant a “wild, barbaric song” as they fight. The lieutenant beats a soldier who tries to retreat from the front line. The captain is shot and collapses. At last, the enemy soldiers begin to retreat. Henry’s regiment lets out a cheer and the survivors heartily congratulate one another. Henry looks around; seeing the sun on the treetops and the bright blue sky, he is surprised that nature keeps on going, with no regard for the bloody events of the field.
. . . upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn.
A short while later, Henry awakes and feels delighted with himself. He thinks he has survived the horror of battle and proved his courage. He and the other members of the regiment draw themselves up proudly and praise one another’s fortitude and valor, shaking hands in an ecstasy of mutual self-satisfaction. Suddenly, someone cries out that the enemy forces have renewed the charge. The men groan dejectedly and prepare to repel the attack. This time, Henry does not feel as though he is part of a machine. He thinks that the enemy soldiers must be awe-inspiring men to have such persistence, and he panics. One by one, soldiers from Henry’s regiment begin to jump up and flee from the line, and after a moment, Henry too runs away.
Henry flees the battlefield, convinced that at any moment, the charging enemy horde will burst out of the forest and overrun him. He darts past a battery of gunmen, pitying them their position in the path of the enemy. He skulks past a general giving orders to his staff from atop a horse, and feels the desire to throttle the general for his incompetent handling of the battle. To his shock, he overhears the general declare that the enemy has been held back.
Henry feels a sudden resentment toward those in his regiment who did not run but, rather, defeated the enemy without him; he feels betrayed by their stupidity. To assuage his own feelings of guilt and incompetence, he assures himself that any thinking man would have realized that the best interest of the army lay in each soldier’s own self-preservation. Consumed by these rationalizations, he plunges into the woods. Now far from the battle, Henry feels comforted by nature. He tosses a pinecone at a squirrel, and the squirrel scampers into a tree. Henry considers this sequence proof that fleeing from danger is a natural, universal tendency. He stumbles into a forest grove whose high ceiling of leaves makes it resemble a chapel. There he discovers the dead body of a soldier in a tattered blue uniform much like Henry’s. Ants swarm over the corpse’s face. Henry stares in shock for a moment and then runs from the glade, half expecting the corpse to cry out after him.
Henry’s loss of individuality in the heat of battle marks his first experience with the nature of war and its powerful effect upon the mind. He realizes the emptiness of his belief that glory is bestowed almost automatically upon individuals who meet battle squarely and fiercely when he observes “a singular absence of heroic poses.” Rather, he loses all sense of self and fights with his fellow soldiers as though all were components of a single machine. This sense of commonality allows Henry’s recognition of the greater good of the regiment to prevail over his selfish desire to avoid death.
The cheerful, self-congratulatory mood following the battle initiates a cycle that repeats itself throughout the novel: when the soldiers prevail, they feel confident and satisfied until forced to fight again, at which point their fearfulness returns; when they lose, they feel dejected and unsure of themselves until they receive a chance to fight again and redeem themselves. As the novel progresses, however, the regiment gradually hardens and shares an increasingly grim and controlled attitude toward combat, keeping their emotions in check until the fighting is really over. In this way, the regiment of inexperienced soldiers matures into a veteran unit.
Henry’s second experience of battle further complicates his assumptions about war, as he unexpectedly panics and flees. The egotistic nature of Henry’s mind (which, because it is the only mind in the novel to which the reader has access, represents every soldier’s mind) reveals itself as Henry works desperately to restore his own self-confidence by making irrational justifications. These passages, which Crane wrote in his most sardonic and detached voice, are often quite comic. For example, when Henry imagines that “he had been wronged” by the regiment’s success in the battle after his flight, and when he condemns the victorious soldiers for being too stupid to follow him. This criticism is ironic, given Henry’s belief that fine minds keep men from fighting bravely in battle. The network of naïve assumptions and grandiose self-delusions in Henry’s mind supports him as he struggles to restore his own sense of importance.
This struggle renders Henry far more complex than a merely vain and self-absorbed character. The briefest glimpse of war has challenged Henry’s understanding of his own significance and has shaken the foundations of his deepest beliefs: his understanding of courage, honor, and manhood. This threat to Henry’s faith in his own special and deserving nature opens the way for the most important thematic exploration in the novel: his acknowledgment that the universe does not care whether he lives or dies. Henry realizes that just as the world spins around the anonymous soldier’s dead body, so will it spin around his. This important insight about the relative inconsequentiality of a given life finds representation throughout these three chapters, as in the sun’s gleaming on the trees after the first battle, surprising Henry that “nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.”
The corpse is one of the most important metaphors in the early part of the novel, symbolizing both the finality of death and the indifference of nature to the elimination of a human consciousness. Rooted, immobile, and swarming with ants, the corpse is an undeniable part of the scenery. No amount of mediation on courage or investigation into whether the dead soldier lived honorably will change the essential, inescapable fact of his death—neither his deeds nor his reputation matter. The sight of the dead soldier undoes the comfortable moral assumption that the squirrel’s flight from danger affords Henry, and shows him that his logic has been too simple: there may be no compass of right and wrong to which he might cling in this situation, no overriding moral truth fundamental to the nature of the universe. Henry learns that death may simply be death and that the universe may not care about his fear of it.