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

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

A war stripped of politics, strategy, and enmy soldiers

Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, was brought to my attention recently when of all tings Bob Dylan cited it in his Nobel lecture s one of his 3 early literary inspirations - the only one of the 3 I hadn't read. I had, however, seen the movie when I was in h.s. and considered it one of the most influential films I'd ever seen - the first to get me to think seriously about pacifism and anti-war activities - in the beginning of the Vietnam era. I've read many novels about the first World War, most recently the excellent War and Turpentine, but reading All Quiet for the first time I can see that it was tremendously influential and formative, mainly because it's about the experience of war as lived and felt by ordinary foot soldiers. These soldiers are with the German army, pressing toward a front in France - but the nationality and the specifics of any one campaign are irrelevant. The power of this novel is that it's a work stripped of politics and of military strategy. It starts with the life of soldiers in an advancing army who are driven mainly by boredom, discomfort, and hunger. In the strange and powerful first scene they get their first full meal in sometime because an advance patrol lost half its men in an attack - so now the 80 remaining soldiers have enough rations for 150 men. The novel focuses on them martinet-like drill sergeants, the absurdities of military bureaucracy, and notably the bombastic patriotism of the schoolmasters who encouraged all patriotic young men to enlist - this latter played a big role in the movie and will I suspect in the novel, too. But just as we think this may be a forerunner to the mordant war comedy of say Catch-22, the men advance into a firestorm and we get a brutal scene of death, destruction, and survival by chance - a truly terrifying scene. What strikes me in particular is that we see absolutely no enemy soldiers - just the bombs, rockets, shells, bullets, and the sound of war - it's a war stripped of people and of antagonism, and all the more terrifying for that.

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