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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, July 17, 2017

A war novel without ideology: All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Marie Remarque's 1928 classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, is justly known for its depiction of battlefield conditions in the first World War - and by the middle of the novel, when the squadron of 150 men encounters its first days of continuous bombardment and attack, the vivid account of carnage becomes almost unbearable: details such as the rats and their constant attack on the few crusts of reak on which the soldiers depend for survival, the gruesome infantry attacks, w/ the German soldiers using spades (rather than bayonets) to kill or maim the French troops, the constant whistling, screaming, and thunderous explosion of shells and grenades, the aftermath with the moaning of the injured and maimed, the gas attacks that rip apart the lungs of the unwary, the rats fattening on the battleground corpses, so much, almost too much - and then the soldiers get a reprieve, a few days away from the front, and we wonder how they can ever summon the strength to go back. But Remarque's point is that the "veteran" soldiers - they're only 20 years old for the most part - become numb and inured, and as he notes several times they will never recover from the experiences they endured in the war (he wrote the novel about a decade after the war, in which he apparently served for a brief time in battle and a longer time in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds). English-language readers will always be a little uneasy reading this novel, which focuses on German troops attacking the French and possible English lines; in part of course the message is that for the ordinary soldier war is almost absurd - there's never a mention of any purpose in the war; the only hawkish patriotism comes from the elderly on the home front, notably the schoolmaster who encourages his students to enlist for the "fatherland." You could almost literally change the topical references and make this a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers and it would read just the same - translating not only the language but the nationalities - and that's also part of EMR's point - like that famous war poem "The Man He Killed." It's a novel about war stripped of politics and ideology.

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