The novel All Quiet on the Western Front reveals the horrific ignorance of war. The horrendous “Great War,” as it was ironically called, obliterated millions of men into useless ravaged meat. The themes of horror and imbecility are portrayed throughout the novel, along with the dire amount of psychological effects reaped on the men of war and their blighted hope towards the older generation of men that so willingly placed their sons into the hands of Death.
The most easily discernible theme of Remarque’s is that of gruesome horror. Constant macabre images clout the mind long after the words pass. Of thinking about the dead, Remarque writes: “In the next sector some of our men were found whose noses were cut off and their eyes poked out with their own sawbayonets. Their mouths and noses were stuffed with sawdust so that they suffocated” (103). Remarque so bluntly puts forth the most terrifying and revolting images, and yet he writes with a detached air, as if to prove that not only do soldiers face horrible scenes frequently on the battlefield but also have to push it to the back of their heads and think of other things.
The absolute absurdity of war is Remarque’s next point. Trench warfare is the most futile way of warring that has ever existed, the easiest way to completely lose an entire generation of people and ruin those left. “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse,” that is the summation of the deaths of hundreds of men at a time, leaving no room for mistakes by the poor young men who are fresh to the fields (129). Trench warfare was nothing but a vacillating line of destruction that left entire battalions dead on the ground. Every soldier in the war knows not what they fight for, does not feel the personal need to kill innocent people or die for a yard of land, yet they are pushed into this war with knowledge only of childhood, and pushed out with knowledge only of death.
When the young men were being thrust into a purposeless calling, they had no idea what hells awaited them, not only for their bodies but also for their souls. Each young man that was sent onto the battlefield had to overcome obstacles that no ordinary person would face, and had to handle them as if they were typical affairs. “My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts,” (222) thinks Paul, “my brain is taxed beyond endurance” (225). These words stress the amount of mental strain the soldiers had to bear, that it isn’t a glory-filled playground where battles are valiantly won, but death matches with no end in sight. Paul was debilitated in his stairway when his sister called his name, merely because he felt that this was no longer his home, that he no longer belonged in the world he left as a child and returned to ruined. Young innocent children were brainwashed into thinking that war was an amazing thing, that fighting for their country would give them glory, but all it gifted them was death and pain.
The propaganda of the elder generation made the idea of war irresistible to the eager young boys fresh out of school and ready to defend their country. The soldiers realize soon that the war has nothing ideal or heroic about it, that it is simply a fight over soil that leaves a massacre behind. Entire lectures were given to gullible and pressured students who did not want to feel left out or be called “‘coward'” by their peers (11). The elderly men are oblivious to what real warfare is like, and as a result of that, urge young men into a ghastly obligation that they soon grasp is a hopeless campaign that can never be won except with death. Paul says of his father, “He wants me to tell him about the front; he is curious in a way that I find stupid and distressing….” (165). His own parents cannot understand the terror he goes through, and in their ignorance, anger the soldiers that truly know what the front is like. It is impossible for the elderly to comprehend the dread induced by living in war and the inept nature of trench warfare itself.
Erich Remarque’s novel masterfully reflects upon and proves the ridiculous magnitude of carnage brought about by war, the monstrosity and ineffectualness of trench warfare, the atrocious aftermath of psychological effects that decimated the minds of all those who persevered, and the caustic disenchantment the young, yet wizened, soldiers feel for their incompetent elders. War merely serves the purpose of shattering pristine youths and despoiling their futures, dreams, and lives, squandering them away bit by bit and raking them over with rifle fire as if they are expendable scrap not worth sparing.
All Quiet on the Western Front. Dir. Delbert Mann. Perf. Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal and Donald Pleasance. Artisan Entertainment, 1979.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1928. New York: Fawcett Books, 1982.