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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
When studying wars, on a historical perspective, World War I is a bizarre one. It is a war with political miscalculation, unlimited warfare, and devastating results. Furthermore, the irony between a naive idealism and the dramatic brutality makes it even more mysterious. Yet, this war is an honest one; without flattering voice, glorified sacrifice, or fair consequences, this war finally demonstrates the cruel ugliness of humanity, which is revealed by the will of murder, and eventually result in fearful suffering. World War I is a story of human’s self-glorification, self-punishments and self-redemption.
If there is one addiction throughout human history, which they cannot either withdrawal or deny, it the desire of murder. This addiction closely related to human characters: the law to prevent killing is called moral; the compassion to save life is called mercy; the knowledge beyond death is called wisdom; the potential to kill is called sin... Death, is an undeniable parclos to humanity; it is the ultimate denial of all its accomplishments. It is the inescapable-ness of death which defines life; thus, it is the unstoppable addiction to kill that defines human. Since death is inescapable, life is sacrificial. Humans have thousands of reasons to justify their acts of killing yet have no will to abandon them; even there is a faint wanting, it is hide and kept in their deep soul. From this death perspective, all humanity has existed in two forms: either dying or admitting to death. Therefore, humanity is a coward; the act of killing was nothing but to fulfill the emptiness of their heart toward death; and, humans have to kill.
“World War I was not inevitable, as many historians say. It could have been avoided, and it was a diplomatically botched negotiation” (Richard Holbrooke). It almost became a universal truth that World War I is nonsense: this war is considered miscalculated and unnecessary. Yet the truth about this war is that it has already been justified by necessity strategies: when look at the First World War, it is easy to give dozens of reasons to be wise afterwards, but when it was actually performed, no one considered the “nonsense” behind this war; oppositely, they think it is proper. Also, when the sound of gunshots are heard in Sarajevo, who predicts this war? When historians are focusing on the logicizing this war, they ignored two facts: 1. They view war more with passive results, rather than a subjective decision. 2. They have mistaken the subjective & objective factors of its cause. Unconsciously or purposefully, they are denying one fact: Humanity is the subjective cause of war, not its surrounding. When examining WWI, instead of emphasizing the horribleness, the brutality, the meaninglessness... Instead, it is the fundamental-ness of it which is in needy of classification. Compare WWI to a war during the Stone Age, the Crusades, or the 100-Years War, their purposes are the same: to destroy life. They also obtain the same mindset: more efficient, the better. Throughout history, this human desire of war is unchangeable despite the difference in its social environments, political stands or technological advancements. Thus, it is not outside circumstances, but humans’ own subjective determination of “the necessity of war” which directly leads to it; therefore, there is a wanting of war. This desire of killing, and war, is already stored in their soul, waiting to be triggered. It is conditional, but not passive; it is causal, but not fortuitous.
“Power lies at the heart of nearly every explanation of why nations go to war. The influence of powerful leaders, their aims, policies and decisions are crucial to any understanding of why nations go to war. [...] However, the most crucial factor in promoting war is…” (Frank McDonough, British historian) “that a long and bitter war was necessary for the sake of Germany's 'health” (Von der Goltz, German WWI writer) because “its restless dynamic to the influence of a militarist spirit and the moral neutrality of Realpolitik... society owed its willingness to discriminate against minorities…” (Gordon Martel, US historian). When linking these quotes together, it is brutally clear that it is humans who truly and subjectively lead to war. Thus, this war is clearly destined, and it does not necessarily require a reason; but if there is any, it will be the “human’s potential to war”.
This potential is a desire from humanity; it is not the result of any external factor, but a inner driving force provoking them. This potential is universal to humanity; the act of killing is not a passive reaction upon threatening situation, but a subjective action according to one’s own will. Furthermore, humans drive this wishful desire into action, which is war. Ultimately, this is the selfishness of humanity, to sacrifice others in order to fulfill one’s own emptiness. Humans are controversial; this is their true nature. They still need to vindicate their heart, while promoting the war; as a result, the war is created out of three controversies: glory and guilty; hope and despair; love and hatred. So, it results in three paradoxes: life or death; salvation or murder; weakness or strength. These characters perfectly prove the unavailability of war, since one can never avoid a destiny which justice and evil will both eventually leads to. This, is what creates wars. Thus, wars are destined.
However, millions are shocked by this war, despite the fact that their humanity never changed; their heart becomes gentler. “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke” (Nurse Vera Britain, 1933). Throughout history, human tried their best to numb their morals and justify the kill yet it results in a rebellion from their soul. Thus, it is a blessing to humanity; it is also a curse to humanity—— now they have to choose: whether to be a sufferer with truth, or be a joyful one with ignorance.
And, this World War I causes by human’s own wish to kill, so it ought to bear its own consequence——though the suffering of the war is not unexpected or overwhelmed, it is a destined result that human must bear for their guilty. It is the “potential to kill” who truly leads the war, thus, the suffering of death is directly lead by the reason of war; it is not accidental, but consequential. Death, and the pain of death, unlike what the majority expected which is a side effect of war that deviates its intention; it is rather a desirable result of war which it originally, willfully leads to: “Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide” (Henri Barbusse, 1916).
However, humans reject this consequence; humans actively deny their will to kill, since it is inhumane. “We're telling lies; we know we're telling lies; we don't tell the public the truth, that we're losing more officers than the Germans, and that it's impossible to get through on the Western Front” (Lord Rothermere, 1917). This is also another human nature: unwillingness of admitting their weakness; they can always discover other’s fault yet ignore their own same mistakes. The reason for is their selfishness. They have to kill in order to triumph or survive. When Paul and his comrades are at the battlefront, they, “are swept forward again, powerless, madly savage and raging; we will kill, for they are still our mortal enemies, their rifles and bombs are aimed against us, and if we don’t destroy them, they will destroy us” (Remarque. 115). Yet this action itself is selfishness of sacrifice one’s life for another’s. Also, human have compassion, yet this sympathy is only a withdraw action form fear—— After his friend Kemmerich has died, Paul oppositely feels: “My joints strong, I breathe the air deeply. The night lives, I live. I feel a hunger, greater than comes from the belly alone” (Remarque. 33). Paul is horrified by the same situation which can happen to himself as well; this is not true mercy or compassion, but a combination of overlooking pity and afterward-fear. Thus, the impureness of this mercy will lead to embarrassment, which finishes in guilty. When Paul was back in the town announce the death of his friend to Mrs. Kemmerich, she insists to know the truth. However, due to the guilt and fear of the truth, Paul lied to her, “He died immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite calm”. Paul will swear “anything (rather than telling the truth)” (Remarque. 181). Although Paul lies for Mrs. Kemmerich, he is also self-denying the truth to calm himself. This is a hidden hypocrisy that not only Paul, but all humans create to selectively forgive themselves, comfort their heart, and to forcefully ignore their sins. This is also selfishness: depriving others’ right to know the truth for a temporary self-relief.
But there is only one true suffering, when the unwilling ones are forced to fights. When they are rolled by the wheel of history; when they are oppressed by the madness in their mind, when they are poisoned by the sorrow of their heart, to kill, that is the only true suffering: “ 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.” (Remarque. 88) Yet it is reasonable for war, since wars are selfish. They are created by selfishness, driven by selfishness, understood by selfishness, thus, it ought to be selfish. However, reasonability does not equal to fairness, and it is this controversy which leads to suffering.
The subjective will and justification of killing is controversial to the loss of one’s own life; thus, hatred builds up on each side, resulting in the will to revenge. Knowing that the restoration of live cannot be done by the death of others, yet people who have been blinded by their grief and anger still use the act of killing to comfort their heart; then, sorrow spreads. This repeatedly proves humanity’s selfishness; the selfish will to kill others for either a satisfaction of the spirit or the salvation of one’s own life. Plus, there is the fear of death instigating human to passively follow their sinful nature, ignoring other emotions, in order to survive. However, those emotions will not vanish; it will eventually rebel against the evil, causing depression and self-doubts. This is how PTSD has formed. After Paul kills Gerard Duval, he immediately senses the guilt and madness behind it. He says, “But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (Remarque. 160) It is a failure of self-justification, or a failure to reason one’s own action, which leads to the loss of their identity. It is also a sickness which paradoxical human logic: after all, a plunder of others’ life can never be justified in any circumstance; however, it is necessary to kill others in order to survive. Thus, soldiers with PTSD question the meaning of their life, yet still cherish it. This inner conflict between mental morals and human instincts permanently damaged their minds, driving them from self-doubts to self-denial and self-hatred, and eventually, self-destruction; furthermore, it cannot be simply understood or compassioned by others, since it’s an internal corruption of mind that cannot be reversed or cured. It is through forceful ignorance and selective denial, that human can reduce its pain by hiding from it. However, the controversy between life and death still exists. And this coexistence of the desire and hatred of war, melancholy of humanity.
Behind all this nonsense of war and death and murder, there is a basic cherishing of life, and the hatred of death. Thus, through pain and suffering, humans repent. The largest question that WWI, as well as any other wars will bring to us, is the morality of ‘valuing one’s own life superior to others’’—— the paradox of ‘loving life’. Maybe this question can never be answered or justified by human, since they are naturally selfish. Yet through all sufferings, it is clearly that every human has a merciful heart and a sympathetic mind; it is the innate sin which consequents to infinite suffering, then it should be the original kindness which perpetually delivers hope. And this hope is already enough.
Choi, Jueun. “'Never Think That War ... Is Not a Crime,' and More Defining WWI Quotes.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 6 Apr. 2017.
NIV Bible. Hodder & Stoughton, 1997.
“Quotations - The Failure of Diplomacy.” World War I, 12 Dec. 2014.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Ballantine Books, 2008.