In English class we recently started “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Marie Remarque, proclaimed by the cover as ‘the greatest war novel of all time.’ The book follows the story of the Second Company through the experiences of a young student named Paul Baumer and his companions as they struggle to come to terms with how deeply the war has affected them and shaken everything they had thought to be true before enlisting in the army. And – I’ll admit – it’s a pretty great book, even if you’re not a fan of war novels.
I’m about a third-way through the book but even still, I’m surprised with how much I’ve enjoyed it. It’s evident that Paul, despite all his troubles acclimating to the harsh life of a soldier on the front lines – which, really, no one can hold him accountable for – is intelligent as well as caring and compassionate (that is, as much as a soldier can be). Even still, he sometimes succumbs to the almost sociopathic (for lack of a better word and taking the term as its more literal definition of lacking emotion / a conscience rather than its generally accepted connotation of, say, a murderer outright) mindset pervasive in his fellow comrades, as shown in the scene where he and his classmates ambush Himmelstoss, their cruel, disciplinarian officer (?), and cruelly beat and whip him. I’m obviously not condoning what is essentially mugging someone, but I think that the fact that Paul does participate in such an act that counteracts his aforementioned compassion drives in the book’s theme of how deeply (and badly) war affects one.
To be honest, I first looked at the book and felt a mild disinterest, distaste, even. I’m generally not a fan of gritty war stuff and, though I have no problem with it, generally avoid the Band of Brothers-esque genre. But “All Quiet” is actually a fairly easy read, with underlying themes that aren’t terribly obscure and are relatively easy to identify and relate to, even now in the 21st century.
What I’m really, really digging, though, is how much Remarque condemns romanticization. It’s a significant part of a chapter and I do hope that Remarque expands on his train of thought later in the book, but the part I’m talking about is where Baumer and his classmates joke about their former studies and teachers, and how their teacher, Kantorek, pressured them and drilled in them this wonderfully noble idea of defending nationalism (even putting their own individualism on the back burner for devotion to their country). In fact, a classmate of theirs, Joseph Behm, volunteered for the army because of this pressure and died a gruesome death involving a bullet in the eye.
All these deep philosophical ideologies of duty and country and nationality, to be quite frank, don’t mean (insert expletive of choice) to the soldiers on the front line because they are literally on the brink of life and death. It’s arguable whether protecting one’s country and its values is worth putting countless soldiers through the kind of emotional, mental, and physical turmoil that Paul and his comrades demonstrate their struggle with, but what I love about this is that Remarque emphasizes the shallowness of these rosy mental images. War means sacrifice, no one can deny that, but it should never be painted as a wonderful, exalting experience, because it’s not, and it never will be.