This essay was written by T. Lloyd Reilly.
A search for the realities of humanity or of humanness can steer one into strange places and reveal unexpected gems. This happened to me a few months ago in a book. For some reason or another I had escaped reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. This probably should have been read when I was a teen, or perhaps as a part of a college lit course. As an aficionado of classic film, I could not imagine how I skipped this story. I found it at the bottom of a box at a garage sale. I passed several of my favorite authors digging into the box to get to this book, and find myself quite pleased with the choice.
In a world rampant with tales of war, it seems unlikely that a tale of a group of enemy soldiers of America, in a war that occurred long ago, could divulge so many truths about who we are and what we feel.
A tale of a group of German teenagers enlisting in the Kaiser’s army during World War I, the narrative held me captive.
I usually read quickly, but I consumed this saga in a single sitting. There are only a handful of books that have stimulated me in such a manner. Each of them is worthy of an essay in themselves, but this particular book came at a particularly poignant time in my life. I was enduring the end of my sister’s life from leukemia and found myself, as is usual, with a loss of importance, questioning the beliefs and feelings I had developed about life and beyond.
In this book there is an ongoing narrative of the day-to-day movements of the main characters as they wind their way through the bunkers and rear areas of the Great War. A description of attacking the enemy lines and losing more than half the company is accented with the survivors attempting to get something to eat afterwards and being refused because the cook had instruction to serve the entire company or none. When told that the entire company was present and that the rest of the contingent lay in pieces either on the battlefield or in medical tents the cook still refused until given a direct order from an officer.
The cook had simply done what he was told, and the lack of deviation probably came as a self-defense action. By doing what is right in front of him, he did not have to think about the horror of the place he lived. Any escape from reality is a tool all the characters shared. Playing cards, smoking cigarettes, taking about girls back home, and how much of a jerk the sergeant was were just some of the diversions used to make it between times of horror.
One scene of particular interest came when several of the teens went to visit a wounded comrade. The wounded man, Kemmerich, lay on a bed complaining that his foot hurt. He had no clue that he was, in fact, absent the entire leg due to an amputation meant to save his life. When one of his comrades let slip that he had lost his leg the wounded soldier laments its loss and the fact that he could not realize his dream of becoming a forester.
While Paul, the narrator, attempts to console his friend, one of the other visitors eyes the wounded man’s boots and realizes that they are in better shape than those he wore and schemed to take them for himself. The thought of having a decent pair of boots served as motivation to enable his willingness to go back into battle. Creature comforts supplanted the deeper emotions of fear and dread that awaits the soldier on the battlefield.
Kemmerich suffers for a while and finally drifts off into unconsciousness before dying. While still lucid, the wounded hero implores the narrator to give his boots to the other man. Paul’s reaction to Kemmerich’s death erupted in a dash out of the tent and around the area, realizing that running made him forget the death and feel more alive and then hungry. Again, creature comforts displace the dread that all must have felt most of the time. The dead man’s boots find different homes as the book go on, reinforcing the ideal of practicality in the face of that which is unbearable.
Living within their means and surviving that which is seemingly impossible to endure rings throughout the book with every page. When the narrator gets a leave to go home, he finds less then he wished and found confusion seeping in. He could understand a day-to-day struggle when being shot at, but grew confused by the same struggle in those whose lives are not immediately at risk.
The daily realities that the narrator expounds upon all have a flavor of true humanness. The things that a combat soldier must tolerate seem to bring out the humanity instead of disallowing it.
Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with the death of the narrator’s friend, Katczinsky. Wounded by a bomb, he is discovered by Paul scrounging for food. While being carried to safety by Paul, another bomb from the very plane that initially caused his distress lets loose another bomb which kills the man while leaving his rescuer untouched. Perhaps, continuing to search for food, the creature comfort, might have saved his life.
Paul suffers through many trials and tribulations that speak to his character and brings the reader to the thought that he is a noble warrior deserving of escape from harm. The reality is that he is just a teenager that has experienced things that no young person should have to. He gradually grows jaded to life and death and it is in his final moment that he reveals that which is still within him. While sitting on the wall of his trench he spies a butterfly and, forgetting where he is, reaches for it revealing too much of his body and is shot dead.
The final scene seems tragic, yet, it fits perfectly. The certainties of war come into focus all throughout the book while the search for simple human dignity is desperately being sought by the narrator and his cohorts. It speaks to what is, and not what is wanted. In living day to day with the ugliness of war, the characters teach lessons of humanity while ignoring the horror.
T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.