Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, a high school reading assignment, was my first exposure to a graphically told war novel. Men died. The nameless battles didn’t matter. The day-to-day stasis was filled with the terror of an unexpected enemy charge or artillery attack. And, there not only was no victory but no respite after the war when the men came home and discovered they weren’t capable of returning to civilian life.
As Remarque, who was a veteran of the war, said in the introduction, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Current Amazon Description: Paul Baumer enlisted with his classmates in the German army of World War I. Youthful, enthusiastic, they become soldiers. But despite what they have learned, they break into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. And as horrible war plods on year after year, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principles of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other–if only he can come out of the war alive. “The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.” – The New York Times Book Review
From the Book: “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”
I believe such books as Hiroshima, Johnny Got His Gun, and All Quiet on the Western Front should be required reading in high school and college literature classes. Students should be assigned the feature film Saving Private Ryan to understand the absurdity of war and especially the “Pickett’s Charge” style assault of the allies at the Battle of Normandy that was (in spite of the casualties) considered a success.
I suspect few students read and discuss such books now. That leads to more people ignorant of war’s realities and, on this day, more deaths to remember. But, we have sanitized our classrooms, removing anything that might offend, scare, sicken, or bother our young people. All Quiet on the Western Front sickened me, brought nightmares, and made me a life-long pacifist. At the time, I hated the son of a bitch who assigned it to my class. Most people couldn’t finish it, glimpsing its plot through Cliff’s Notes, Monarch Notes, and stolen copies of exams. Now I think that son of a bitch did me a favor. I’m stronger for having a war story shoved in my face.
As the years go by, the military/civilian disconnect, as some have described the reason few people understand or celebrate Memorial Day properly, has grown because a smaller and smaller percentage of the population experiences military service. So, we have little or no association with the horrors of war, with losing friends and loved ones, or–if we serve and see battle–returning to civilian life less broken than the characters in Remarque’s novel.
I cannot claim this is all bad, but I think that those who serve our country in the military deserve more assistance and respect when they return–and a holiday more associated with honor and reverence and remembrance than as a day for shopping, barbecues, and cavorting at the beach.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the anti-war novel At Sea.