Friday, August 22, 2014

The first modern anti-war novel

All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Classic Flashback #2

Back in 1986, a friend of mine, who was a Vietnam War veteran asked me to go see the movie Platoon with him. As we walked out of the theater, he was unusually quiet but asked me what I thought of the film. I responded that I thought it was excellent but I also admitted that I thought parts were confusing for a war film. "Often I couldn't tell who was shooting at who." I said. He grabbed my arm and said excitedly."THAT IS WHAT IT WAS LIKE!"

Every war has its own uniqueness. It has its unique horrors but also share universal horrors with other wars, not just those of physical destruction but also mental and even spiritual destruction. Erich Maria Remarque's classic war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front has two great achievements. First, it takes us to World War I and allows us to see its unique horrors in the eyes of the combatants. It is an riveting almost documentary style accounting of the combat of war. Second, it addresses the universal horrors for the young men caught in its grip; the lost of innocence, the exploitation, and the suffering, physical, mental and existential. But it is also perhaps the first great ant-war novel. The author takes us into the war through the narration of a young student who, with his closest classmates, volunteer at the urgings of their patriotic and romantic professor. What he experiences is nothing like the visions of his elders and his nations' leaders. Remarque has an astoundingly powerful style that excels in both descriptive observations and the ability to make clear the most harrowing feelings. In one portion of the novel, the men have been bombarded with bombs for days, never seeing their attackers. Then they move forward and meet them face to face...

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down, Now, for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and be avenged.

Remarque does not ignore the power of war in the most quiet moments...
To me the front is a mysterious whirlpool, Thought I am in still waters far away from its centre. I feel the whirl of the vortex sucking me slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself

And this may be the most powerful statement describing the lost of innocence during war I've ever read...
We are like forlorn children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial. I believe we are lost.

All Quiet of the Western Front should be required reading for all high school students. Its meaning and power is as strong as it was almost 80 years ago. It is the very definition of a enduring masterpiece.

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