It's probably no coincidence that the "war to end all wars" spawned one of the first anti-war novels. World War I was initiated with all the pomp and flag-fluttering Europeans were used to in war-time, but ended in mass disillusionment, despair, and moral confusion. It was the end of the Modern Era and the first step toward postmodernism.
Erich Maria Remarque captures all this in his masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front with a grace and poetry few novels of similar theme achieve. The hero, Paul Baumer, is an anti-hero in the truest sense: thrust into a situation he can't understand and which he dreads, he fills an appointed role: a uniformed killer of the Enemy.
He becomes preoccuppied—sitting in a cold, plague-infested trench, listening to shells, watching his friends mowed down by Allied bullets—with a crusade to end violence. If he makes it through the war, Paul vows, he'll end the foolishness between nations. He isn't a hippie; his conviction is borne of necessity and fear.
Remarque's novel is almost an adventure story. The members of Baumer's company are young, many of them teenagers, and they do many of the things young men do and long for. But there's a pall over everything; they all know they're about to die, death is all around them, they're made to think the thoughts of old men with the minds of boys.
At one point, Paul spends a night with an injured enemy soldier. They share an intimate moment after the man dies, when Paul looks through his personal stuff. It's stark and brutal, showing the impersonality of modern warfare perfectly. Paul doesn't want to kill these people, and he's sure they don't want to kill him; they're puppets in the hands of unscrupulous men.
Though Remarque (himself an ex-combatant on the Western Front) is clearly anti-war, he never falls into the kind of sentimentalism that seems to be the favored stance of so many writers and activists. He simply shows war, its futility and its horror, through the eyes of one of the billions of young men it's ruined.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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