10 Feb. 15
The Horror of War
All is Quiet on the Western Front is considered to be arguably the greatest anti-war novel of all time due to its overriding theme of the terrible brutality and horror of war. While most novels romanticize the glory and honor that war evokes, Erich Maria Remarque portrays the events as they are actually experienced by military soldiers during World War I. In contrast to common ideals of patriotic duty and heroism, he instead describes the butchery and fear on a catastrophic level. The author exemplifies this unromantic vision by depicting the dehumanization of military training, illustrating the true gruesome nature of war, and revealing the underlying reasons for war and the corrupt nature for which they were birthed, essentially to the point that war is meaningless. In order to take part in the front-line of a war, a man must detach from all notions of civilized society. One of the most disheartening side effects of war is the psychological damage inflicted on the young soldiers who were forced to fight, of which many did not recover. With death, lack of food and sleep, and inadequate conditions being routine, the men had to disconnect from any emotions in order to cope and accept their current circumstances. Once the soldier has crossed the line to see the enemy as a target with no remorse, how are they to reintegrate into society? To kill without question, without empathy, he loses his humanity. In Remarque’s novel, he describes a moment when the main character, Paul, is wedged in a trench with a French man he just shot, and narrates the feeling of the realization that the enemy is just another human being:
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
The internal suffering that Paul faces is apparent in the text, as he is forced to go against the animalistic instincts he has been trained with once faced with the dying man. Survival means he must suppress his feelings; to acknowledge the violence and humanity results in death, as Paul struggles with later on in the book. Along with the other soldiers, he became numb and was unable to have a life without the war. Returning to society only made it worse, and resulted in his ultimate death as the ideas of humanity caused confusion and paranoia. In addition to the psychological effect becoming a primary hardship for the young men, the intense physical threat and violence is also characteristic of any war. Remarque further alludes to the idea of the devastating nature of war by depicting the meaningless carnage and savagery which it imposes. During World War I, killing was made easier with the invention of machine guns, poison gas, and trenches. These advances created a deeper disconnect and impersonalized the slaughter of countless men. The sheer magnitude of death is a reoccurring motif throughout Remarque’s novel as he illustrates the innumerable bodies and dying corpses. Every two chapters narrate another battle scene, giving the reader the experience of what war is truly like. In the book, Paul expresses that, “A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia.” It becomes difficult for someone with an outside perspective to fully understand the loss encountered in war. Even Paul stands astonished at the totality when reflecting on the thousands deceased. Remarque successfully