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Wow, this book deserves all the accolades it has received over the years. It is the quintessential war novel which was written in the 1920s and the ideas are as pertinent today as they were then. For those who don't know, the story is about a young German man who serves as a soldier in WWI. Erich Maria Remarque knows what he was talking about because he served in the German army during the war. It is a devastating portrayal of the waste of the lives of young men in a war zone. Even though the particulars of battle are different today since we have much more sophisticated weapons, the overall effect of the bombardment of bombs and the horror of men dying all around you would not be any different for those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan or any other modern war. I've read several books about the experiences of some of our troops in Iraq, and the descriptions of war are amazingly similar.
And it isn't just the battle scenes themselves which have so many similarities to today's wars. Remarque obviously thought deeply about what events transpire to bring about war. In one scene, Paul, the narrator, and his friends were discussing who starts a war. His friend commented, "True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are laborers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren't asked about it any more than we were." Soldiers don't start wars except possibly guerilla wars. They are only told to go and kill the other guy even though they personally probably do not have any actual grievances against each other.
A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in the hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
I can imagine the young soldiers of today who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan reading this book and thinking that the experiences of the characters in the book is true to what they experienced in their real war. We heard much about how some of our soldiers came back from Iraq and how they can't relate to their lives any longer outside of a war zone. Certainly many Vietnam veterans had the same problem. In the novel, Paul and his friends knew exactly that feeling. They went straight from school to the war. They were encouraged to enlist by their school master, even made to feel they would be cowards if they didn't go. So school and war is all they've ever known. And they cannot envision life after the war.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; - it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?
This novel is about a war that began one hundred years ago, but the message is for today and always. In the discussion about who starts wars, Paul's friend Kropp has the right idea, I think. "Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting." It sure would save lots of precious lives.