What would our fathers do if one day we rose up and confronted them, and called them to account? What do they expect from us when a time comes in which there is no more war? For years our occupation has been killing – that was the first experience we had. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what can possibly become of us?
Having acquired a taste for Historical Fiction last year, I have now read several tales of fiction from various WW. while books on WWII are quite easily available and popular, books on WWI often see readers in the minority. So, it wasn’t by sheer chance that I chanced upon All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque but my online readers’ group who came to my rescue. They unanimously voted for this book to be one of the best when starting with WWI and I couldn’t agree more.
He is right. We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things any more, we believe in the war.
Paul Baumer was a young schoolboy of 16y when the bells rang. Bells to call for war. You heard it right. Schoolboys and war. Instigated by their teacher, Paul and other boys of his class enlist and are soon recruited in training camps. Through the years, he finds himself at various posts. Sometimes he belongs in the backup infantry and sometimes he is stuck on the front line, dodging weapons fire.
Paul makes friends or rather buddies for these years, whom he hangs out with at the bunker. As each of the members of his buddy group falls, Paul’s mental state begins to affect. They look for the boots of the fallen comrade even before he has taken his last breath, he enjoys the little privacy he gets while sitting on the poop box with a couple of others from the group, sneaking out in the middle of the night and parting away with their share of the loaf for some warmth from women excites them, the idea that they might get a full meal for once even amidst heavy fire is welcoming, such is their state. Their thoughts are mostly about things other than the war, but always dependent on survival. What will they do after the war is over? Whom will they go back to? Will they be allowed to sit for their examinations? Will they be offered jobs? Will they be able to adjust after all that they have seen and endured? Will the war ever be over?
The harder I think about war, the harder it becomes to make sense. WHY? Just why? Trust me, after several books, I’ve tried all my best to identify with the war zones, the soldiers, the civilians, the devastation, the suffering…nothing has worked. I can’t see myself in any such circumstance, I only see the entire thing as the outsider, a person who is invisible to all yet amidst them all the time, observing, pitying, crying, though never once feeling it for myself. Even the current state of India isn’t close to what a war zone must feel like, maybe the healthcare, to some extent might be similar, but everything else, not close, not even a millimeter close.
Remarque writes thoughtfully, or that is what I can say about him because I trust the translator to have done a good job. While most of the books I have read dealt mainly with civilians’ suffering, this one takes us to the heart of the war. The thumping infantry, the footmen who keep the blood running, the heart pumping (damn the irony) for yet another day, and without whom the war would cripple in no time. The deeper we go into the heart, the realization gets starker. The realization that this heart is not alive. The men who keep it going are dead, both literally and figuratively. The literal dead leave behind their bodies, while the other dead, leave behind their dreams. Dreams of a normal life, dreams of a loving home, dreams of peace.
As the narrative progresses, the author unfolds the horrors of war that aren’t visible to the eye. The changes these soldiers go through are not merely physical but much more psychological. Their hesitancy of going home on leave, their reluctance amongst the civilians, and their comfort on the lines despite being under shell fire speak a lot about their mental state than their bodies do of their physical state. They rapidly lose their past, their present under danger, and the fear of the future tear them apart, beyond repair.
As much as we love to scream war at every finger that points towards us, we forget the repercussions that will come along. In spite of so much devastation that is visible, people still support violence, I have lost faith that this will ever stop. Not for the mental health. Not for peace.
If you haven’t read this, you must. You must let Remarque wash you over with his words, of Paul in his soft bed, uncomfortable, of his mother, dying, and of his sister, undernourished herself but saving food for him. You must let yourself drown in their world to understand what the war did to them, and that only death gives you peace.
I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they’ll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and so devoid of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through these years, is still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not.1 like