That war destroys lives is a truism. That it's dehumanizing, alienating, traumatizing - I would hope that these are readily recognized. And yet I fear we forget the simple horrors of war in rushes of excitement or romance or patriotism.
Perhaps it's the way I was brought up, but
in my early twenties, I was truly staggered to find out that people
could honestly, unironically, declare themselves "pro-war." I mean,
think about that term! You might think war is sometimes ugly but
necessary, but pro-war? Pro-any-war? There are people who can say that
with a straight face and without wincing or shuddering inside?
was a sobering wake-up call. It shook my own worldview - not that it
changed my own political inclinations, but truly, I thought that that war is
ugly and awful and not in any way exciting or romantic was something
that everyone could agree on. I'm still a little sorry I found out
otherwise - it was far worse than discovering there is no Santa Claus.
I'd like to take those people and sit them down and have them read this
book. Make it so they can't look away from Remarque's words, from their
meanings, from the humanity that comes through in this book. To read a
book about and by a soldier on the opposite side to those of us in North
America. A German soldier, in the First World War, writing not about
honour, but about survival. And trauma. And how war takes soldiers and
teaches them to kill their fellow human beings (it always heartens me to see how much intensive training and structure is
necessary to make it possible for most human beings to kill other human
beings. I wish it were even harder.)
And what that does, how it
took up a generation of young men, on both sides of the conflict, and
destroyed them. How little those at home understood, how much those who
had never been near a battlefield romanticized what was going on at the
front, how soldiers returning home on leave, or after the war, were
unutterably changed, sacrificed by people who would never have to make
those same sacrifices themselves. How little they recognized the
romanticized war civilians saw. How little space they saw for themselves
in that new world. How much Remarque notes the common humanity of
soldiers on both sides.
And yet, even with that recognition, the
military complex that compelled them to continue to fight, that
sacrificed so many in horrific trench warfare.
This book is not
an easy read. It is unsettling and stark. And I don't know how anyone
can read this kind of account and come out still calling themselves