Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this one as a kind of expiation for my having read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August last week. There were parts I admired about that book – above all her clean prose and her ability to recover a lost socio-political context – but something troubled me. I knew that stories of kings’ or emperors’ piques, or generals’ ‘wheels’ and ‘advances,’ didn’t tell all the war – certainly not the important parts of the war – and I felt I owed something to that vast sea of suffering we call World War I.

Now that I’ve read this – which is every bit the masterpiece its reputation gives it – I’m ready to declare Tuchman’s book flat-out immoral. Paul’s war in this book is so much more (and, from Tuchman’s vantage, so much less) than that story, that the experiences seem to wrestle which each other to wear the stamp of truth.

And, if only one version of World War I can go down as the truth, I’ll insist on this one over hers any time. To do otherwise is to let slip an implicit lie: that war is, as Clausewitz said, “politics by other means.”

There is nothing political about All Quiet on the Western Front. It is human in the deepest sense. Our narrator’s suffering and endurance earn our admiration regardless of the side he’s fighting for.

In one of the most harrowing scenes, he has managed to kill a French soldier who’s jumped into the same crater in which he’s taken shelter. He’s killed to keep from dying himself, but he’s seized with a sudden sense of the wrong he’s committed. He then carries on a long soliloquy with the dying/dead man. He allows himself to glimpse the other man’s life, looking at the letters he’s received and the pictures of the family he’s left behind. Then, even as he does so, he feels himself hardening his heart, feels himself withdrawing the sympathy that came so naturally.

It’s a scene that feels as authentic as any I can imagine about the horrors we subject our soldiers to. Tuchman’s generals and kings make the decisions, but you can’t say, after reading this, that they make the war. The war happens instead through the character, the bravery, the fear, the decency, and inhumanity, of the individual soldiers who suffer through it.

I’m tempted to compare this as well to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as competing masterpieces of the moment. The trouble is that much of Hemingway’s genius comes in the style he developed for insinuating his story more than for the indirect way in which he tells it. This is a direct account, one more naturalistic (and therefore less Modern), but one that’s equally devastating.

I can’t know the quality of the translation here, but a couple lines do stand out. He writes early, “We are 18 and have begun to love life. Then we have to shoot it to pieces.” And at the end, when he is wrapping up a visit to the medics, “A hospital alone shows we are warriors,” asserting that there is no grandeur to their bravery, only a bodily suffering.

This is remarkable from its tight, direct beginning to its final sentences. If you get the chance, read it. More importantly, if you hear too much in our politics or our history celebrating the possibility of war, read it again.

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