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

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The strange experience, for Americans, of fighting a battle within miles of the "homeland"

A few developments in Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, as a few of the German soldiers, recuperating in a base camp away from the front for a few days, swimming in the canal spot three French young women and begin flirting - and they make a date to meet them that night. The soldiers purloin some bread and sausages and swim across the river (naked, but carrying their boots!) and visit the young women; They ply them with provisions and then, presumably, have sex with the women (in keeping w/ protocol of the time, scenes of gruesome violence are OK but not scenes of sex). Readers have to think about these women: Are they prostitutes? Are they just that hungry that they'll sell their bodies for food? Are they just women out for a good time with some soldiers? There's no doubt that after the war these women will be branded as traitors, and perhaps justifiably. We develop some sympathy for the German soldiers over the course of this novel, but there are limits; consorting w/ the enemy seems beyond the pale. Later, the narrator goes home for 2 weeks of leave - a painful chapter as he feels he doesn't fit in anywhere; he senses that his family - mother ill w/ cancer, no social services to speak of, father working OT to pay medical bills, not enough food anywhere - is suffering, but he can't talk openly about the experiences of the front. He hears the usual bloviation from older men not in the service who have their own ideas about how to win the war and what territory German should seize - so easy for them to talk and boast, and there's nothing to say in response. In yet another painful scene he visits the mother of a dead comrade and swears to her that her son died instantly and w/out pain - an obvious palliative lie. It's strange for Americans to read of these two week visits home after service on the front, as we realize that for the past 150+ years we've never fought a battle on American soil. It's odd, to us, to have the battlefields so close to the "homeland" - making it easier in some ways to service, and in other ways much harder, as every town and village is in jeopardy. When the narrator returns from leave he's put to work in a post guarding Russian POWs, men who are suffering from near starvation. He is a humane man and provides them w/ some morsels of food when possible, and it's true that nobody really has enough to eat - but, still, the treatment of the POWs is deplorable and by today's standards - the Geneva Convention, if that's still in effect - borders on being a war crime.

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