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Everyone knows what war is. It's a nation taking all of its men, resources, weapons and most of its money and bearing all malignantly towards another nation. War is about death, destruction, disease, loss, pain, suffering and hate. I often think to myself why grown and intelligent individuals cannot resolve matters any better than to take up arms and crawl around, wrestle and fight like animals. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque puts all of these aspects of war into a vivid story which tells the horrors of World War 1 through a soldier's eyes. The idea that he conveys most throughout this book is the idea of destruction, the destruction of bodies, minds and innocence.
The author starts off his book with a note highlighting the meaning of this book. It is as follows:
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
shells, were destroyed by the war.(Intro)
Right after reading this paragraph, I knew that none of this book was to be comical or heroic. It was not going to be one of those stupid stories romanticizing war and making heroes out of men who killed more of the enemy than anyone else; this book was about destruction. These few lines before chapter one set the whole tone for the rest of the book. Glory does not exist in this story, only death and sadness.
The story takes place through the eyes of a German infantryman named Paul Baumer. He is nineteen and just joined up with the German army after high school with the persuasion of one of his schoolteachers, Mr. Kantorek. Paul recalls how he would use all class period lecturing the students, peering through his spectacles and saying: "Won't you join up comrades?"(10). Here was a man who loved war. He loved the "glory" of war. He loved it so much as to persuade every boy in his class to join up with the army. He must have thought how proud they would be marching out onto that field in their military attire.
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The gory horrors of this story take place in the trenches up on the front lines where shells scream overhead night and day. Whenever the shells stop, its bullets and men that come pouring into the ditches, hacking, punching, shooting, cursing, screaming and dying. They wrestle like animals, fighting to survive, fighting because they are driven to by men in shiny suits up in high government offices, fighting because they fought the day before and the day before that too, fighting because their only hope of crawling into bed that night can only be achieved when they have killed enough of the enemy and when the general is content with the blood and gore and says they can go back to base. Here is how Paul sees a "glorious" day in the trenches:
The fire lifts a hundred yards and we break forward.
Beside me a lance corporal has his head torn off. He runs a few steps more while the blood spouts from his neck like a fountain...A young Frenchman lags behind, he is over-taken, he puts up his hands, in one he still holds his revolver- does he mean to shoot or to give himself!-a blow from a spade cleaves through his face...With the butt of his rifle Kat smashes to pulp the face of one of the unwounded machine-gunners...we stumble over lumps of flesh...I fall into an open belly on which lies a clean new officer's cap.(115-117)
I would like to know where the good ol' glory and victory of war is in those lines. War is a thing which mangles bodies and warps minds. I could not imagine seeing a human being have his face crushed with a blunt object, or see my friend run around with blood spewing from his neck. War is a destruction of body, mind and innocence.
Everytime Paul can crawl back to base with all parts of his body, he is lucky. A lot luckier than the poor man lying on the ground trying to stand up but can't because his left knee is gone. But there is no way that Paul feels the same as he did before going into battle that day. Sure, he is unhurt and feels physically fine, but what about mentally? After days and days of fighting, it's a wonder he's not insane. He sees his friends die, mutilated beyond recognition. He hears them scream in pain and cry out in anguish for their mothers and loved ones for they will never see them again. They fall to the ground never to rise. Once a person, now only another statistic in our history books.
Besides all these nightmares, Paul is also losing any innocence he had as a schoolboy. Before, he studied books and papers. Now he studies the end of his rifle when picking off opposing troops in their trenches. After that first homicide he can never say again that he has never hurt anyone. It's a permanent stain upon his conscience. He is forced out on the battlefield and down into trenches. There he takes the life of other human beings, people he doesn't even know. One of the most moving parts in this book is where Paul is forced to take cover in a shell hole with a man he has just stabbed. After a while passes off his trained urge to kill and takes up the normal human emotion of compassion:
...He is dead I say to myself, he must be dead...Then the head tries to raise itself, for a moment the groaning becomes louder, his forehead sinks back upon his arm. The man is not dead...I raise one hand, I must show him that I want to help him, I stroke his forehead...This is the first time I have killed with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing.(218-221)
I cannot visualize with all my mind what it would be like to stab a stranger and sit with him for hours while he dies pained, dirty and thirsty. That would certainly be the end to all innocence I ever knew.
By reading this book, I was able to see how war destroys every aspect of a human being; no one comes out of war the same way they went in. No one. I wonder who has the confidence and the nerve and the sickness to motivate thousands of young men to run forward and shoot and kill one another as if they were wild beasts driven with rage and beyond all human instincts of love and compassion. Wars have been going on since the beginning of time. How is it that all these government leaders around the world are supposed to help people, but all they do is destroy them? And why do some go down in the history books as heroes because all they did was take responsibility for the death of human beings? One cannot ever really blame the common soldier. In today's world people are lured into war by stories of glory and action. It is not the soldier's fault; he is lured like a fish to the hook. It is sad that throughout history, a nation's power has been measured by its ability to kill, harm and destroy. Everyday, people around the world pay taxes that go to their governments. Large portions of this money are taken by these individuals in power and put to the use of making machinery to kill, bomb, burn and annihilate political enemies, thus gaining power and wealth for the victor.
Anyone who takes pride in war should most defiantly read this story and see war as how Paul Baumer saw it. Everyday he stood face to face with death; everyday he had to kill or be killed. By the end of this sad tale, every aspect of him is destroyed. First his mind, then his innocence, lastly his body.
Works Cited and Consulted
Eksteins, M. "All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War," Journal of Contemporary History, 1980, vol. xiv.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.