Sunday, 2 March 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

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?

That 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.

So 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 "pro-war."


  1. "The common humanity of soldiers on both sides"......well said. I wish it was required reading for all people. I read this book many years ago but it still stands out in my mind when ever the discusion of war comes up.

  2. I watched the 1930 film production, which is also considered a classic. I'd also recommend Paths of Glory and Le Grand Illusion (films). And Galipoli...and..... Oddly, or maybe predictably, just about every book I've read about war glorified it in some way.

    1. That's very sad to me. I think most I've read have been fairly anti-war, but I think I'm coming from that perspective anyway.