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 the war.

 

I read the novel  All Quiet on the Western Front in 1966. I was 13, in junior high school, and probably still believing that being a soldier was pretty cool. My dad had been in the Navy in WWII and I had taken to wearing his old Navy denim jacket and an Army field jacket that a family friend had given me.

Although the Vietnam war was heating up and starting to be part of the nightly news, I wasn’t all that aware of the politics and Army/Navy surplus clothing was popular with teenagers including the hippie-types that were starting to show up in town and at the high school.

I chose the book from a list the teacher handed out of classics for book reports. I thought from the cover that it would be a war novel with some action.

There was certainly an anti-war movement in the country at the time, but I was at the fringe. That was something high school and college students were doing. We were still kids.

All Quiet on the Western Front must have been my first anti-war novel.

At the age of 18, Remarque was drafted into the German army to fight in World War I. He was wounded five times. In 1929, the novel he had been working on for 10 years was published. The book was an immediate international success. It was banned in Germany, and in 1938, Remarque’s German citizenship was revoked.

All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of the narrator, Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Unlike Remarque, Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches of their teacher, Kantorek.

The speeches seem false pretty fast though as they go through their basic training with a petty, cruel Corporal. The patriotism gets beaten out of them when they get to the front.

Paul’s squad gets bombed in a French town close to the front. One of his friends dies and another is severely wounded. Paul, who is also wounded, is granted leave and at home finds out his mother  is dying of cancer. He realizes that the older men in town, like his teacher, have no sense of the horrors of modern warfare. He tells one of his friend’s mother that when he was killed he did not suffer. That’s a lie.

As the book closes, he is writing a letter to a friend who is the only other survivor of their class, though he is now an amputee. I don’t know if there need to be spoiler alerts for a book and film that are so old, but the conclusion of the novel (and film) really hit me hard as a kid. Paul is sketching a bird and he stands up to see where it flew to and, exposing himself above the trench, a sniper’s shot kills him.

It is only a few weeks before the war will end. All is quiet on the western front.

Like Paul and his friends, I started to think about concepts like nationalism, patriotism, the draft and Vietnam. I started to pay attention to the anti-war movement rhetoric. I didn’t see war as glorious or honorable as I had as a kid playing army with my friends in the neighborhood. I shifted my fear from the atomic bombs they had warned us about in elementary school to the war that I might be required to enter in a few years.

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Comrade, I did not want to kill you. . . . But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. . . . 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?

Paul says those words to the dead body of a French soldier whom he has just killed. It is when he first realizes that for any differences of birth or uniform, the enemy is fundamentally no different from him.

The film version, All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 1930), is considered a classic. It won the Oscar for best picture. It is directed by Lewis Milestone. I saw that it was on TV recently and watched it again.

I originally saw the film version in the “Film Society” after school club that a teacher ran in my high school. Now, the idea of being drafted and going to Vietnam was very real. With all the anti-war sentiment amongst my classmates, the opening sequence of a teacher urging his students to volunteer while troops marched outside their classroom actually got some laughs from our audience. Who would volunteer to go to war?

The film probably seems dated to modern audiences used to graphic battle footage, but the effect of the camera in the trenches and how the young soldiers quickly lose their ideas of glory on the battlefield still had an impact on me. World War I seems like ancient history to a young audience today – as does WWII, Korea and even Vietnam.

Without a draft, I don’t know that high school and college students give the same thought to war. I was in the last class to be in the draft lottery. That lottery (which always makes me think of the Shirley Jackson short story that we had read in English class) must seem absurd to kids today. We sat in our college freshman dorm and watched on TV someone pull balls out – just like the nightly state money lotteries of today – with birthdays and a corresponding number that determined where you were in the draft line. I lucked out with a high number. What could you say to the kid sitting next to you with #10?

In the film, Lew Ayres was the unknown actor who played Paul. I only learned in researching this article that Ayres became a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II. He did serve in battle as a medic, but taking that position hurt his career in a time of great patriotism between the two world wars when you would have expected a young man to feel that loyalty to your homeland that the German professor pushed at his students.

The book was made into a television film in 1979, starring actors Richard Thomas as Paul and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky.

As America pulls troops from Afghanistan and things heat up again in Iraq and some politicians call for us to send troops there and other places, all of the anti-war of my youth comes back to me.

South Vietnam fell after U.S. troops left. Today, people go there on vacation. What did we accomplish?

I watched a CNN special on Vietnam this past week and listening to President Johnson talk to Robert MacNamara and his military advisers who knew they could not win such a war but did not have the courage to pull out was painful. It prompted me to write to President Obama and VP Biden and urge them to consider history carefully and have that courage that Johnson lacked.

Today is the birthday of Erich Maria Remarque who was born in Osnabrück, Germany in 1898.  Remarque became a citizen of United States in 1947 and was married to American film star Paulette Goddard. He died in 1970.

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