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You've probably heard the expression "war is hell." You also probably know Edwin Starr song and it's immortal lines: "War! (Huh!) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again." And maybe you've even heard the "I-Feel-Like-I'm Fixin-to-Die Rag," a song that combines kazoo music (yep) and pitch-black lyrics like "What are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn" and "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box."
Thanks to the many, many cultural references to war, you probably have a very firm idea that it's pretty much the opposite of a bed of roses...even if you've never been near a battlefield. But few other texts—even bleak war movies like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan—pack quite the visceral, seriously anti-war punch of All Quiet on the Western Front.
It's not a spoiler so much as a trigger warning to tell you that this book is filled to the brim with details of slow, agonizing death, dismemberment, gaping wounds, and lungs devastated by poison gas. But it's the intention of this book to trigger you in a serious way: one of the main aims of this book is to show war as being too cruel and too horrifically brutal to be glorified.
Because the glorification of war is what gets the protagonist of All Quiet on the Western Front into the army in the first place. Young Paul Bäumer is persuaded by his teacher—a man who has never seen battle but believes in war as an expression of love for the German Fatherland—to join up. And throughout the novel, Paul meditates on this issue: the fact that the men who have never seen war and don't have to serve at the front are the people who start wars, whereas the soldiers (the ones dying by the dozens in the trenches) fight wars.
And author Erich Maria Remarque knew what he was talking about: he fought on the Western Front when he was eighteen years old, sustaining several injuries (Source). The horrors of what he witnessed as a soldier stuck with him for a decade and, on November 10, 1928, Remarque published the first installment of the novel in Vossische Zeitung, a German magazine.
The book was an initial smash hit, getting translated into multiple languages almost immediately and being made into a feature film in 1930.
But after the Nazis rose to power, Remarque's book was banned and then burned. The Nazis didn't want a stunningly eloquent book questioning the idea of the German Fatherland or whether war was a glorious spectacle that turned boys into men. In 1938, Remarque lost his German citizenship, eventually moving to Switzerland.
Remarque went on to have a long and lauded literary career, but he never again published a book as wildly successful (or as controversial) as All Quiet on the Western Front. Most of the time, we'd dismiss a career trajectory like that by saying "Yeah, he was a one-hit wonder" or "He got lucky with one book." But we can't dismiss Remarque or his later work like that—pretty much all of his stuff is amazing. It's just that All Quiet on the Western Front is so brutal, so stunning, and so amazingly written that it was impossible to top.
Yeah, we don't have enough fingers and toes to count all thereasons you should care about All Quiet on the Western Front. In fact, it would probably be easier to tell you why this novel is irrelevant: it's not, for example, an example of the perfect rom-com. (That would be When Harry Met Sally, btw.)
As far as timeless Big Deal Themes go—life, death, youth, age, experience, innocence, love, hate—All Quiet on the Western Front has 'em all. It's meant different (and important) things to different generations: people reading this book in 1967 probably thought immediately about the Vietnam War, while people reading it in 2002 would have thought about patriotism post 9-11.
But All Quiet on the Western Front has made pretty much everyone, whether you read it as a housewife in 1929 or a soldier in 2017, think about a very particular problem: that it's hard to come home from war.
We know that that sounds like a gimme: naturally, war is going to change you. Few people outside of veterans, however, think of the particulars...or how totally frightening they are.
When protagonist Paul Bäumer is given leave to take some R&R back home, he's initially thrilled. He gets to sleep in a soft, clean bed instead of a trench or barracks, he gets home-cooked meals, he gets to enjoy the tranquillity of civilian life. But then he realizes that he has no one to talk to. No one understands his life or what he's seen...and no one wants to hear about his reality. People parade him around in his snazzy uniform, but do the equivalent of closing their ears and humming "Na-na-na, I can't hear you," when he tries to tell them what he's done while wearing that uniform.
He begins to long to be back at battle.
This might be the most devastating loss in Paul Bäumer's life: the loss of a feeling of home. The alienation he feels back home is so acute that he begins to think of war, with all its rats and missing limbs and terror, as where he belongs. Or, as he puts it,
I imagined leave would be different from this. [...] I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. (7.173)
And if you pay attention to the issue of veterans and mental health in America today, you'll realize that this crushing sense of alienation wasn't just something that happened in WWI. It happens now. As journalist Sebastian Junger writes in his 2015 article "How PTSD Became A Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,"
In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as re-entry into society [...] The shocking disconnect for veterans isn’t so much that civilians don’t know what they went through—it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to fully understand another person’s experience—but that what they went through doesn’t seem relevant back home.
Junger goes on to suggest that present-day Americans could do a lot for the mental health of veterans by listening to them. When experiences of war seem reverberate in a vacuum, veterans' alienation increases in leaps and bounds. But when people take the time to listen and try to comprehend stories of war, it's beneficial both for veterans (because they need to be heard) and civilians (because listening to other people's experiences makes you, at the very least, a more empathetic person).
So: there you go. You should care about All Quiet on the Western Front because it gives you a front-row seat to the difficulties of one man's homecoming...and because the experience of reading this book will make you aware of how important it is to listen to the experiences of other veterans.
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