If you’ve read the previous installments of this series, you’re probably thinking that “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane has no place here. It might be a stretch, seeing as there’s no outright war in this short novella, I’ll give you that. However, there are two reasons why I’m including it: Crane’s intimate connection to a life threatening situation and how he put it on paper, and because it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time.

You may know Stephen Crane from his more famous novel (and one I should also probably write about), “The Red Badge of Courage,” but “The Open Boat” speaks to me on another level because of that intimate connection I mentioned. As a former foot soldier who’s gotten my hands dirty on occasion, it always irks me to hear stories written by people who clearly don’t know what they’re talking about; conversely, it always excites me when experts talk about what they know best.

When I first read “The Open Boat,” I was struck by the book’s stark realism–it was just a little too visceral, personal and most of all, specific and detailed, to be purely from this man’s imagination. The book is about four men stranded on a dinghy after a major shipwreck, and their fight against the elements to survive. I would come to find out that Crane wrote this book just after surviving the exact same thing, in that exact same way. It’s essentially a fictionalized telling of what really happened to him.

And that’s my loose connection to war–war is about fighting. It’s about the brutal edge between life and death, and very little pushes men further to that edge than nature herself. Crane was out there fighting the elements and “The Open Boat” is a simple, relatively short but emotional telling of that journey.

He describes the unforgiving nature of the sea:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.  Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.”

Nature has always been unforgiving

I know I’ve felt this way about war. You train and train and train, you have the entire brute force of the U.S. military at your back and you fight–you realize you could just take a stray bullet and there’s nothing you could do about it. That helplessness is somewhat daunting. It’s sobering to realize that you might take a bullet to the face and the world will just continue to spin along like nothing happened. As WWI veteran C.S. Lewis once said, “We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.” Of course, being the romantic that C.S. Lewis was, he had more to say about it–but you get my point.

It’s an indifferent beast, nature. The emotional side of that helplessness is reflected in another scene, where a childhood song randomly floats into one of the men’s mind. The man is called “the correspondent” and he can’t quite shake the lyrics–it’s simple and short, and it goes like this: