Considered by many to be the greatest antiwar novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (henceforth All Quiet) is much more than a well-written war story. Remarque’s depiction of trench warfare told from the perspective of young soldiers is, arguably, the most accurate and accessible account of war and the effects of combat ever written, no matter the particular conflict or generation of warrior. Further, it provides insight into how writing – transforming moral injury, trauma, and traumatic recollections into a narrative – enables the warrior to process and find meaning in the experience.
Some may find my claim regarding the importance of All Quiet to be overstated given that it is a novel and not a personal memoir, historical account, or clinical research study. Remarque did experience combat on the Western Front during World War One, was wounded several times, the last quite seriously. Consequently, Remarque’s writing, his observations, and insights were informed by his firsthand experiences of the nature and impact of war, both of which he masterfully portrayed and explained in this tragic and poignant story of several young men encouraged, perhaps coerced is better, into military service by those whose influence and authority they respected, particularly their schoolmaster Kantorek. Paul Baumer, the novel’s narrator and protagonist recollects from the trenches of the Western Front.
I can see him now, as he used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice: "Won’t you join up Comrades?" . . . There was, indeed, one of us who hesitated . . . But he did allow himself to be persuaded, otherwise he would have been ostracized . . . at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word "coward.". . . the idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. (Remarque, 1929, p. 11)
As evidenced by innumerable "tainted" histories and personal accounts of war, the most recent being the "epic chronicle" of the Vietnam War by respected filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, too often, memoirists, documentarians, and historians, despite the best of intentions, fall victim to the temptation to sanitize war, or to portray its horror, pain, and sacrifices as important, necessary, glorious, irresistibly exciting, even sacred, and a way for young men and women, "ardent for some desperate glory" to gain recognition, respect, admiration, and the gratitude of others. Rather, to ensure he avoids this propensity to mythologize, Remarque chose the novel, narrative fiction, and a carefully crafted story – poignant and gut-wrenching dialogue and imagery – to render a more truthful and accurate account of the war experience. Though it may be difficult, if not impossible, to portray such an intense emotional reality into words, Remarque’s goal and hope were to "unpack" and allow the reader access into the world of killing and dying, not only to understand but, more importantly, to feel, as best as possible for someone spared the experience, the realities of war and its devastating impact upon the warrior.
We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee behind him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. (Remarque, 1929, p. 91)
As Remarque makes clear in his introduction, All Quiet was not politically motivated. Nor was his primary intent to advocate for a pacifistic ideology, though his experiences in the trenches had clearly convinced him of war’s futility and waste.
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 shells, were destroyed by war. (Remarque, 1929, Introduction.)”
I would argue that the reason All Quiet is widely regarded as antiwar is a testament to Remarque’s skill in accomplishing his ends, to tell the truth, to demystify war, and most importantly, to engage the readers’ emotions and intellect. Further, it is a consequence of a determination made by the reader, including those with little previous understanding of war and with no predisposition toward pacifism, once having been provided access to and allowed to feel the reality and the horror of war stripped of hyperbole and patriotic mythology, that the cost of war to all involved is such that rational and moral people ought ensure that World War I indeed be the "war to end all wars." Paul pleads for an end to the horror and for the lives of his comrades.
“Now he is lying there – and for what reason? Everybody in the whole world ought to be made to walk past his bed and be told: "This is Franz Kemmerich: he is nineteen and a half, and he doesn’t want to die! Don’t let him die!” (Remarque, 1929, p. 29)
All Quiet on the Western Front is a walk past Kemmerich’s bed. Though there is much to learn from "All Quiet" about the evil of war and its profound effects on all it touches, in this essay I will focus only upon Remarque’s brilliant portrayals of several important factors and experiences contributing to Trauma and Moral Injury – specifically, the process of creating soldiers who will kill, the dehumanization of the "enemy," and the profound alienation warriors suffer as a consequence of the indoctrination and the experience.
Creating Soldiers Who Will Kill
War is inevitably overwhelming and killing another human being a devastating act usually antithetical to both ordinary conceptions of morality and to what psychologist and former Army Ranger Colonel Dave Grossman describes as a natural – innate – reluctance toward killing members of one’s own species. He writes,
“. . . there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.” (Grossman, 1995, p.3)
To wage war successfully, recruits must overcome this reluctance to kill and develop “an immediate killing response.” Basic military training, therefore, programs recruits utilizing Pavlovian stimulus-response conditioning techniques termed "reflexive fire training," to react automatically and without hesitation to an enemy and kill him. Paul Baumer describes this process of instilling young men (and now women) with the values and behaviors appropriate to the warrior identity.
“So we were put through every conceivable refinement of parade ground soldiering till we often howled with rage . . . We became hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough – and that was good; for these attributes were just what we lacked. Had we gone into the trenches without this period of training most of us would certainly have gone mad.” (Remarque, 1929, p. 26)
Further, in creating warriors who will kill, the immediate negative instinctual and moral impact of killing another human being must be allayed, at least temporarily, through a technique termed “distancing." Consequently, an important goal of basic training is to create distance between the warrior and those they must kill by accentuating (and fabricating) the “enemy’s” cultural, racial, ethnic, and moral differences. That is, to instill in the recruits, an abstract perception of the enemy as evil, demonic, subhuman, nonhuman, and socially inferior. J. Glenn Gray, a philosopher and veteran of World War Two writes,
“The typical image of the enemy is conditioned by the need to hate him without limits . . . Most soldiers are able to kill and be killed more easily in warfare if they possess an image of the enemy sufficiently evil to inspire hatred and repugnance.” (Gray, 1959, pp. 132-133)
In a memorable incident from All Quiet, Paul Baumer impulsively stabs an enemy soldier who sought refuge in the bomb crater in which he was hiding. As Paul (and the reader) endure the hours as the suffering soldier slowly dies, we learn that his name is Gerard Duval, that he was a printer, with a wife and child who will never see him again. Paul is emotionally overwhelmed with regret as he realizes the humanity of the other, the repugnance of what he had done, and how he had been programmed unconditionally to demonize and to hate him.
“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?” (Remarque, 1929, p. 223)
They did not tell Paul, of course, of the enemy’s humanity because it is part of the deception, the process of conditioning, necessary if human beings are to become effective warriors and overcome their reluctance to kill. Inevitably, however, the deception is revealed and the warrior is left to confront the guilt, shame, anguish, and grief, the moral injury that accompanies the realization that he has killed “poor devils” just like himself.
His name, it is a nail that will be hammered into me and never come out again. This man is bound up with my life, therefore I must do everything, promise everything in order to save myself: I swear blindly that I mean to live only for his sake and his family. (Remarque, 1929, p. 147-148)
As the rules governing their daily lives have changed so completely and abruptly, returning warriors suffer profound disorientation, what I have termed elsewhere as “moral identity confusion" (Bica, 2017), perceiving themselves adrift between two worlds, the world they recognized as their place of origin – though, now, quite foreign and inhabited by alien though recognizable individuals they had once loved – and the world of killing and destruction of which they now feel a part.
“Upon my return to the world (the United States), I felt a stranger in my own home. Things were different . . . or maybe I was different. As much as I hated the war, at least there I felt I belonged . . . I knew what was expected of me and after some thirteen months in country (in Vietnam), I was able to fulfill those expectations . . . Here I am a misfit, an aberration, isolated and alone.” (Bica, 1979, p. 56)
Remarque brilliantly portrays the abandonment, isolation, and alienation many warriors suffer following their return home after having experienced the death and destruction – having grown old – at the front. While on leave, Paul is conflicted,
“When I see them here, in their rooms, in their offices, about their occupations, I feel an irresistible attraction in it, I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow . . . while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes and star-shells go up, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches. They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise.” (Remarque, 1929, p. 169)
Disconnected from their ethical foundations – their frame of reference with which to structure their world – returning warriors’ lives no longer had meaning, their world became incoherent, and their relationship to it and to other human beings, even close loved ones, became incomprehensible. Paul elaborates.
“You are at home, you are at home. But a sense of strangeness will not leave me. I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there my case of butterflies, and there the mahogany piano – but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us . . . It is I, of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today . . . But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.” (Remarque, 1929, p. 160, 169)
Tim O’Brien in his The Things They Carried, a novel about the Vietnam War and a close second in importance to All Quiet, provides guidance for identifying truth in war storytelling.
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” (O’Brien, 1990, p. 68)
All Quiet on the Western Front is a masterful work of truth-telling. Remarque’s writing demonstrates a profound understanding of the consequences of the war experience and the difficulty of coping with traumatic battlefield memories. His dialogue and imagery engage the reader both intellectually and emotionally allowing access to a world alien to all except the relatively few who have suffered the horror of war firsthand. It is no wonder, then, that so many who read All Quiet understand and feel the obscenity and evil of war, no wonder they perceive the novel as antiwar. Consequently, All Quiet on the Western Front should be required reading before enlisting in the military and/or sending young men and women to fight, kill, and to die in war.
- Bica, C. M. (2017). Beyond PTSD: The Moral Casualties of War. New York: Gnosis Press.
- Bica, C. M. (1979). War Journals. Unpublished manuscript.
- Gray, J.G. (1959). The Warriors, Reflections on Men in Battle. New York: Harper and Row.
- Grossman, D. (1995). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Remarque, E. M. (1929). All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books.
- O’Brien, T. (1990). The Things The Carried, Broadway Books. New York: Broadway Books.
Camillo “Mac” Bica, Ph.D., is an author, activist, and Professor of Philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His focus is in Social and Political Philosophy and Ethics particularly as it applies to war. Mac is former Marine Corps Officer, Vietnam Veteran, long time activist for peace and social justice and coordinator of Veterans For Peace Long Island. He can be contacted through his website at http://www.camillobica.com.