All Quiet on the Western Front

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 believed 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” that were starting to show up in town and at the high school.

I chose the book from a stack the teacher offered 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 and then I watched the 1930 film version.

At the age of 18, the author, Erich Maria 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 It was banned in Germany, and in 1938, Remarque’s German citizenship was revoked.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 Paul Bäumer, the narrator, 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 by one of their teachers.

The speeches turn out to be false as they go through their basic training with a petty, cruel Corporal. The patriotism gets beaten out of them by the time 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 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, 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. I’ll leave that unmentioned.

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.

frame from the 1930 film

“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 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front is considered a classic. It won the Oscar for best picture. It is directed by Lewis Milestone. I saw it when I was a teen and later in a film course in college on a big screen.

I originally saw the film version in the “Film Society,” an after-school club that a teacher ran in my high school. That year, 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 somewhat 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 which we watched on TV in my Rutgers freshman dormitory. That lottery (which always makes me think of the Shirley Jackson short story that we had read in a high school English class) must seem absurd to kids today. We sat in our dorm and watched 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 his homeland that the German professor pushed at his students.

Now, as American troops have left Afghanistan, war means Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You see warfare and its effects on the nightly news. South Vietnam fell after U.S. troops left. Today, people go there on vacation. What did we accomplish?

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

I watched the latest film version of the novel. It is a 2022 German film (in English). It’s very good but it is much more graphic than earlier versions. It follows the idea that to be anti-war it needs to show us the horrors and futility of war.

An Address at Gettysburg

On this date, November 19, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

I heard or read the speech several times in school, but I don’t think its importance or powerful brevity made a strong impression on me then. Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, it is often taught in public speaking courses. Students are surprised at its brevity, which is part of its power.

As an adult, I visited the cemetery and battlefield. Though it is now a National Park Service tourist attraction with buildings, parking lots, and a gift shop, walking along the battlefield still had a kind of hard-to-describe power.

Gouverneur Warren Monument atop Little Round Top

November 19 was four and a half months after the battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived at about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, and a local preacher offered a long prayer. Surprisingly, Lincoln was not considered to be the headlining orator. That was Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours and described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes. It is less than 300 words. Ten long sentences. It was so brief, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn’t even realize that the president had spoken.

The next day, Everett told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

On the train trip from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln remarked to a member of his cabinet that he felt weak. Several people who accompanied the President reported that he had been dizzy the next morning and that his face had “a ghastly color” and that he was “sad, mournful, almost haggard.” After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30pm train to return to Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak with a severe headache, and when he returned to the White House, he was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox.

The Address inscribed on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial

There are several versions of the speech because five different manuscript copies exist and they vary slightly. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it’s generally accepted as the official version for that reason.

The last time I felt the power of his address was when I read it as it is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial on a trip to Washington, DC in November of 2016. It was just after the election of President Trump. I, and many Americans, were wondering how differently Lincoln’s words would be interpreted by different groups of people today.

Link to an NPS Virtual Tour of Gettysburg National Military Park

The “Valley of Death” and Devil’s Den as viewed from the statue of General Warren
on Little Round Top, Phot: NPS, 1910.

The Lost Generation

The generation that came of age during World War I became known as “The Lost Generation.”

They were seen as “lost” because they seemed to be somewhat disoriented. The perception was that many of them were wandering in a directionless manner.

The name always seemed to me to be rather chauvinistic since it was primarily referencing the young men who survived the war and came home confused and aimless in those early post-war years. The generation is described as the cohort born between 1883 and 1900.

Hemingway 1918
Hemingway, 1918, Milan

One of those lost men was Ernest Hemingway who came to be considered a major voice for this generation. Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899, and in the First World War, he volunteered to serve in Italy as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross.

At 18, he tried to enlist in the army but was deferred because of poor vision. The Red Cross was taking volunteers, so he signed up. He was working at a newspaper (Kansas City Star), so he quit in April 1918, and sailed for Europe in May.

He was 19 years old in June 1918 and running a mobile canteen. I’m not sure that dispensing chocolate and cigarettes to soldiers is the macho image that many people have of Ernest Hemingway. That month he was wounded by Austrian mortar fire.

The Sun Also RisesA novel didn’t come out of his experiences right away. On his 26th birthday, he began his first novel. That first novel would be The Sun Also Rises. It was about his generation but it was not about the war.

He was in Spain in 1925 and the novel is set in Paris café life in Paris and at the Festival of San Fermín in Spain (which includes bullfighting and the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona) and a fishing trip in the Pyrenees.

Hemingway used a lot of his life for the plot and characters based on real people.

I don’t think the “Lost Generation” in the novel seem so damaged by World War I that they are totally lost. Of course, years had passed since the WWI and his characters seem pretty strong and starting to find their way in the world. The themes are familiar ones for Hemingway’s writing – love, death, masculinity, and being in nature. His journalism experiences certainly influenced his use of short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, and compression. On the fiction side, he used less description than other writers of the time and favored dialogue as a way to build characters.

Originally, he titled the novel Fiesta and also considered calling it The Lost Generation, but finally used The Sun Also Rises. (It was published in London under the title Fiesta.) Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins picked up the manuscript and it was published in 1926. Perkins became Hemingway’s lifelong editor.

The novel got a good review in The New York Times and other New York newspapers, but didn’t get great reviews across the country. It seems tame today but was considered somewhat shocking at that time. Hemingway’s mother said it was “one of the filthiest books of the year.”

Beyond the (male) writers of the Lost Generation, the label was also attached to other artists, including women. Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the term, but Hemingway popularized it. he used it as one of the epigraphs for The Sun Also RisesStein had said in a conversation that “You are all a lost generation.”

In his memoir A Moveable Feast (which was published in 1964 after Hemingway’s and Stein’s deaths), he wrote that Stein heard the phrase from a French garage owner. Stein said that her garage owner told her that when a young mechanic had failed to repair the car quickly enough, he scolded the young man, “You are all a “génération perdue.” Stein also said in that conversation that “That is what you are. That’s what you all are… all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

Something else that he wrote in A Moveable Feast, explains his theory on writing which he called in Death in the Afternoon the “Iceberg Theory.” He meant that, like an iceberg, he wanted much more to be below the surface than you saw on the page. He wrote that he had learned that “… you could omit anything … and the omitted part would strengthen the story,”

Farewell to Arms original coverHis second novel is the 1929 A Farewell to Arms in which he did write about the Italian campaign of World War I. This first-person story of the American, Frederic Henry, has him as a lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. Frederic is injured and then falls in love with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley.

A Farewell to Arms became a best-seller and Hemingway was able to make a living writing fiction.

National Moment of Remembrance

NMR logo

A short reminder post that the National Moment of Remembrance, established by Congress, asks Americans, wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, to pause in an act of national unity for a duration of one minute.

Congress officially established the National Moment of Remembrance to put “memorial” back into the holiday and reclaim the day for the purpose in which it was intended.

In Paradelle, that time is in 30 minutes from this posting. The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on this national holiday.

The Moment was not meant to replace traditional Memorial Day events; rather, it is an act of national unity in which all Americans, alone or with family and friends, honor those who died in service to the United States.

As laid out in Public Law 106-579, the National Moment of Remembrance is to be practiced by all Americans throughout the nation at 3pm local time. At the same time, a number of organizations throughout the country also observe the Moment. For example,  all Major League Baseball games halt and Amtrak train whistles sound.

Memorial Weekend

graves at Arlington marked for Memorial DayMemorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. It was formerly known as Decoration Day and commemorates all men and women who have died in military service for the United States.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials and participate or watch parades during this weekend. But Memorial Day Weekend has become seen as the start of the summer season. When did that change occur?

Decoration Day it originated in the years following the Civil War. When that war ended in spring 1865, it had claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history. It required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. It was soon after that some towns started having springtime tributes by decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.(Waterloo, New York was designated in 1966 as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.)

In 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans suggested a nationwide day of remembrance on May 30th as the day to decorate graves of fallen soldiers. later that month. He chose that day because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

After the two World Wars, soldiers killed in those wars were also included. Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, no matter when the date fell on the calendar.

Then, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Included in this Act was the establishment of Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. That went into effect in 1971. It became an official federal holiday that year and also a public holiday, so schools and most businesses are closed.

My parents were married on May 30, mostly because my father could have a longer time off from work, but also because they thought it would mean they would always have their anniversary as a work-free day. My mother said that their honeymoon in Washington, DC was a big city-wide celebration, as if everyone was celebrating their wedding – and it would always seem that way. With 1971, that changed.

This year May 30 falls on the Thursday after Memorial Day Weekend.

Hopefully, this weekend is more than barbecues or a first trip to the beach or summer place.

The National Moment of Remembrance, established by Congress, asks Americans, wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, to pause in an act of national unity for a duration of one minute. The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday. The Moment does not replace traditional Memorial Day events; rather, it is an act of national unity in which all Americans, alone or with family and friends, honor those who died in service to the United States.

There Will Come Soft Rains

As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.


There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.


Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.