The novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque is a narrative about the dehumanizing effects of war. It details the experiences of the narrator, Paul Baumer, a young man who leaves school to join the Germany army during World War 1. His decision to join the army is influenced by the patriotic speeches delivered by his teacher, Kantorek. However, Paul soon realizes that war is not as glorious as he had been made to believe. As a fighter on the warfront, he comes face-to-face with the harsh realities of a soldier’s life. Initially a sensitive and caring person, Baumer is forced to become a “human animal” to reconcile himself with the haunting task of killing. He loses his human touch and respect for human life as a result of his role in the war. In this light, All Quiet on the Western Front provides a realistic view of war as opposed to heroic films and thriller novels that glorify it. The author advances the idea that war is not something to be proud of, but an evil that society should avoid at all costs.
War dehumanizes individuals by making them insensitive and indifferent to the suffering of others. This is exemplified in the novel when Paul’s company returns to their camp after a fight with the Allied forces, in which several of his fellow soldiers had been killed. The survivors are not aggrieved by the loss of their friends. Instead, they are delighted at the prospect of getting a bigger share of food because they are now fewer. They enjoyed the food meant for their dead compatriots, without showing any remorse or grief. Similarly, Muller is not aggrieved by the misfortune of his friend Kemmerich, whose leg was amputated after due to gangrene infection. Instead, he is interested in taking Kemmerich’s boots because he will not need them any longer. In this regard, war has a psychologically conditioning effect that makes individuals lose their humaneness. As Paul observes, surviving the nightmares of war compels one to disconnect oneself from human feelings like fear, grief, and sympathy. Regarding the death of one of his friends, he states that “Parting from my friend Albert Kropp was very hard. But a man gets used to that sort of thing in the army” (Remarque, 2013, p. 142). This confession shows that war makes a cruel animal out of a sensitive and caring person.
Tim O’Brien portrays the same theme in The Things They Carried, which narrates the experiences of a group of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. O’Brien shows how war places a heavy psychological burden on the shoulders of inexperienced soldiers. Through the description of the weapons and luggage the soldiers carried in the jungles of Vietnam, the author portrays the burdens of guilt, dejection, and betrayal that characterize the life of combatants. One of O’Brien’s compatriots, Norman Bowker, is affected by grief and confusion long after that war that he “drive aimlessly around his hometown to write O’Brien a seventeen-page letter explaining how he never felt right after the war” (O’Brien, 2009, p. 131). Like Paul and his friends, O’Brien’s company is forced to kill in order to survive. In both cases, the soldiers just follow their leaders’ orders to kill without questioning the good that will come out of the war. In this light, Remarque and O’Brien show that sometimes war are fought to satisfy the whims of leaders and not because of ideology or national reasons.
At another level, Muller’s actions and attitude illustrates the pragmatic and practical realities of war. The surviving soldiers’ and Muller’s decision to take advantage of the situation by demanding a bigger share of food and Kemmerich’s boots respectively, demonstrates that countries go to war for self interests. The idea that leaders often use to justify war is the claim that they hope to make the world a better place. However, the author suggests that wars are not fought for altruistic reasons. Nations go to war to conquer enemies, occupy territories and control natural resources. For instance, the world’s two biggest wars, World War One and World War Two were fought over religious/cultural differences, power, and resources. In more recent times, the U.S. has, in two quick successive wars, invaded two countries- Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2005 (Brooks, 2006, p. 117). The reasons given were to ensure security by ending terrorism and curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. However, the prolonged occupation of Iraq, an oil producing country, suggests that America had self-interests in going into Iraqi. That is the practical reason that persuades nations to arm their military and go to war. Remarque illustrates this idea through the actions of Paul’s company and Muller’s indifference to the misfortune of others.
In conclusion, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front portrays the terrible cruelty and brutality of war. The novel provides a realistic picture the physical and psychological suffering caused by war. The author desists from glorifying and romanticizing war with the ideas of patriotic duty, honor, and adventure. Instead, he presents the reality of war from the point of view of a man who faces its agonies in the battle field. The death of the narrator in the end is significant because it eliminates the possibility of heroic tales told by a battle survivor. It strengthens the author’s idea that war means death, torture, suffering and living in constant fear for one’s life.