Sunday, May 29, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

How many times did I say I must read this book, but didn't? And how many times did I read that it was the best book about war—often. I finally picked it up and now wonder why it isn't mandatory reading for all people— legislators, high school students, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. It's a graphic look at the ugliness, the waste of life, and the inability of the powerful to find another way to exercise power.

Often the young are encouraged by their elders to enlist. In Remarque's book it is a school teacher who inspires young men to enlist in the German army. At the beginning of World War I Paul Baumer is one of the young men who volunteers. He is the voice we hear, the eyes we use to contemplate the world of Paul and his friends who are sent to the Western Front.

Survival is day to day, hour after hour.The conditions are deplorable, the food is meager and small parcels of land are both won and lost—passed back and forth like a checker game. This is a book that pushes the reader into the trenches. It is a book that holds up the losses. Of course there's death, limbs amputated, eyes blank, but there are other losses. Many of Paul's comrades die in the field or at a hospital. Others , including Paul, become alienated—lose their souls.

In one poignant scene Paul kills a French soldier who has entered his physical space. He is devastated when he hears the soldier gurgle before he dies. When Paul looks him in the eye he promises that he'll take care of his widow, his children. This man looks just like him—simply a man. Of course he will not look ater the widow or the children, but he does ponder the carnage and the question the why of war.

" ...a mountain in Germany," Paul says, "cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat."

When these men return home they are alienated from those who haven't experienced war.


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