Despite the romanticized glorification of war by some, reality has proven that war causes detrimental loss and the damnation of lives long beyond conflict’s physical grasp. War, beside any conceived necessity, justifiably carries connotations of supreme loss. Of course the loss of lives, often of tens or hundreds of thousands en masse, but also of much more. In her story “The Red Convertible,” author Louise Erdrich chastises war for the terrible way it causes soldiers to permanently lose not only their lives, but sight of themselves.
War does not just kill, cripple, and maim; it digs into the mind and changes people from amiable to bitter. In the first act of the story, Henry is presented as a kind, affable, and well-liked individual, but after he returns from Vietnam, he is “jumpy and mean” (4). The story’s position as invariable criticism of war can be seen through the fact that Lyman states “you could hardly expect him to change for the better” (4). Despite some people’s belief that serving one’s nation leads to the betterment of their character, this work does not acknowledge that as a possibility, stating plainly that the only potential outcome of war on Henry’s character was a negative one. The use of Henry, a character portrayed in the first act to be kindly and amiable, as a vehicle to convey the tragic degree to which this transformation occurs is an insightful and powerful one. The emotional trauma of combat also alters the behavior of those forced to experience it. Erdrich exposes this psychological damage and the changes it causes in people by writing Henry to become violent in addition to callous. For a meaningless reason, Henry shoves his previously close brother against a wall (4). Lyman tries to rationalize this, telling himself Henry “didn’t know what he was doing” (4), but both he and the reader know that sentiment is naught but a mental placebo. Erdrich knows that needing to fight to survive imbues one with a tendency to gravitate to physical altercation to solve problems, and communicates this concept through Henry while shaming the powers that force people to live in those conditions. She writes Lyman to say that “the whole war was solved in the government’s mind, but for [Henry] it would keep on going” (3), and this conveys the degree of carelessness she implies the government has to the well-being of GI’s. While the forced participants in the war are scared for life, so long as the government feels the war is done, then that’s the extent of their interest.
This apathy is exhibited not only be the powers that begin and run the war, but also by the participants in it upon their arrival home. On top of being mentally and emotionally damaged, these poor souls are cursed with a curious lack of care about almost anything. This story showcases veteran indifference Henry failing to even notice when he has blood running down his face (4). It speaks volume when something has such a powerful effect that it causes a person not to notice or care when they’re hurt, a fundamental human evolutionary trait, and it is therefore implied that anything that could force someone into such a state is one which wields too much power.
Though youth is something of euphoria and bliss, a time in which the often dark realities of the world have either yet to emerge, or at least take a back seat to more trivial, yet enjoyable, aspects of life, there must always arise a time when this youth, this innocence, is irrevocably lost, replaced with the inevitable gravity of existence. Sometimes this is caused by natural maturation, but innocence may also be stolen, often by the horrors of war. Lyman and Henry both began the story as innocent young men, simply two brothers who saw the world as their oyster. Beyond the characters, the story itself begins as lighthearted, and is seemingly a whimsical tale of the pair’s adventures in their hot red convertible, which is used as a symbol of specifically Henry’s innocence. It is in its worst condition after his return from war, as is Henry’s emotional purity. Henry tries to recoup this almost magical innocence by fixing the car, and though he does repair the automobile, he realizes it was and empty accomplishment after he and Lyman drive down to the river. He recognizes that “It’s no use” (7) to keep trying to regain what he’s lost, and, knowing that he has forever lost his sense of innocuity, he tries to at least protect his younger brother from the same fate by giving him the car. This only ends up further affirming the concept that war takes away things that can never be taken back, however, because this attempt fails, and the car, along with both boys’ innocence, die with Henry.
Even something as seemingly permanent as physical appearance is not spared by the brutal force that is warfare. This does not refer to the also very real possibility of actual physical damage, but to the way in which the trauma of combat leaves people a near-expressionless husk of their former selves. Lyman comments on how “the shadows on [Henry’s] face are deep as holes” (6), illustrating the eerie, somewhat soulless quality of his appearance. Dropping to such a lowly state after being a strapping young man “built like a brick outhouse” (3) drives home Erdrich’s point that war’s might is too strong and damaging.
Perhaps above all else, this story is used to censure the way in which warfare causes its participants to lose the will to live. As if it weren’t already enough that combat takes the lives of tens of thousands, but even those who survive are doomed with a sense that their life is futile. It cannot be known whether Henry intended to commit suicide by entering the river, but the way he so calmly declared his “boots [were] filling” (8), without any struggle to save himself, expresses his total lack of passion to continue living. The way he said that, simply that his boots were filling, both carries a sense of depressingly humorous irony, given the fact that he is literally dying yet only comments on his boots, and acts as a metaphor for him filling with dread. Boots are mentioned rather than other footwear because of the imagery they evoke, imagery of sturdiness and strength. To say that boots are filling creates an image of hopelessness; if something so strong can be defeated, what can’t? Likening Henry to these filling boots likewise displays this bleakness, in that even such a previously well-adjusted individual as Henry can become overwhelmed, filled, with sorrow to the point of an empty lust for life. Whatever water could fill such a boot, or so to speak, would indeed have to be very dark, dense, and miserable. It is made clear through this story that conflict is at least one example of something so terrible.
Some have demanded to know what benefits, if any, warfare provides. They may be provided the answer that it protects common people and their interests, but at what cost, it must be asked? Is it truly worth it to gain a small amount of worldwide political security in exchange for the condemnation of thousands to death and dread? Evidently, Louise Erdrich thinks not, as “The Red Convertible” acts as a vehicle to criticize war for causing irreversible loss of deep, personal concepts of mental and emotional integrity.