Wednesday, August 20, 2008

all quiet on the western front

Every summer, I indulge myself by largely avoiding scientific writing and reading predominantly pulp fiction (see my earlier post on Jack Vance's The Demon Princes, for a prime example). Aili suggested that I tackle All Quiet on the Western Front, since, embarrassingly, I had never read it before. While it doesn't quite qualify as "light" summer reading, it was a quick, intense read. I don't know what I expected. Not only a damning condemnation of the horrors of war, All Quiet... is also an insightful commentary on the psychological impact of combat: one clearly apropos to our time.

A central theme of the book is that war also ruins those soldiers fortunate enough to survive. This motif is introduced in the "dedication" of the book:

"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war."

The author, Erich Maria Remarque, was a German soldier in World War I and clearly serves as a model for the protagonist and narrator, Paul Baumer. Both men came from working class families, and had aspirations of becoming playrights and writers prior to the war. In an early chapter, Baumer comments on how the war has transformed these early dreams into something incomprehensible and absurd:

"It is strange to think that at home in the drawer of my writing table there lies the beginning of a play called 'Saul' and a bundle of poems. Many an evening I have worked over them - we all did something of the kind - but that has become so unreal to me I cannot comprehend it anymore. Our early life is cut off from the moment we came here, and that without our lifting a hand... For us young men of twenty, everything is extraordinarily vague... All the older men are linked up with their previous life. They have wives, children, occupations, and interests, they have a background which is so strong that the war cannot obliterate it. We young men of twenty, however, have only our parents and some, perhaps, a girl - that is not much, for at our age the influence of parents is at its weakest and girls have not yet got a hold over us... Kanotorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept up away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land. All the same, we are not often sad."

I find this a striking observation, and one that continues to ring true through the modern age of warfare. How many of our young soldiers find themselves stripped of all but their animal nature by the toils of war? How many struggle to reintegrate into a society which both admires and detests what they do?

The men of Baumer's squad sit around discussing their former and future lives, when the bombs quiet and the front is distant. They cannot wait for the war to end, but fear their personal aftermath. What will they do? How could they possibly find meaning and solace in the world after seeing what they have seen?

"'...All I do know is that this business about professions and studies and salaries and so on - it makes me sick, it is and always was disgusting. I don't see anything at all, Albert.' All at once everything seems to me confused and hopeless. Kropp feels it too. 'It will go pretty hard with us all. But nobody at home seems to worry much about it. Two years of shells and bombs - a man won't peel that off as easy as a sock... The war has ruined us for everything.'

He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begin to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."

With our ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's been a lot of talk about PTSD and "damaged" soldiers coming back to the States. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Remarque suggests that something deeply horrid happens to soldiers forced to witness the worst of human violence - they lose their not only their capacity to function in a "normal" society, but their desire and motivation. War ruins these young men and women, even if they come back with all their limbs intact.

At one point, Baumer is given leave to see his family, far from the front. He is surprised and depressed to discover how alienating an experience it turns out to be:

"I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval... I find that I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but one can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.

I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me... They are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence. Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. "

As the war drags on and more of Baumer's childhood friends fall to bullet, bomb, and gas, he becomes despondent, enters into existential despair. He desperately hopes this is a passing phase, but you can sense his pessimism:

"But perhaps all this that I think is mere melancholy and dismay, which will fly away as the dust, when I stand once again beneath the poplars and listen to the rustling of their leaves. It cannot be that it is gone, the yearning that made our blood unquiet, the unknown, the perplexing, the oncoming things, the thousand faces of the future, the melodies from dreams and from books, the whispers and divinations of women; it cannot be that this has vanished in bombardment, in despair, in brothels."

I was surprised at the eloquence of this work. Several times I had to stop reading because a particular phrase or paragraph forced upon me an uncomfortable train of thought. All Quiet on the Western Front has been described as one of the most powerful anti-war novels written, and certainly, it is difficult to walk away from this book with anything but disgust and fear for warfare. But it seems clear that humans are not yet capable of controlling their most violent emotions - and that our society must face up to the psychological and philosophical challenge presented by the return of thousands of young men and women who will struggle to rediscover their soul in a homeland become strange.


  1. I just read All Quiet a couple of weeks ago for the first time, and I agree it was excellent. I'm curious to watch the film(s) that were made from it. If you're interested in more of the same I can recommend plenty.

  2. I think you would have liked to talk with my Grandfather who served in WWII, sadly he passed in 93.

    So where are you liviing getting use to the cold like myself?

    PS. Love the NM pics. Didn't see them before.