This is a comparison between Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Timothy Findley’s The Wars on the theme of war/realities of war. GR 12 course essay. Hope this helps
Thesis: War dehumanizes us, where we become like animals in order to survive, which leads to our destruction.
The theme of war is a clear aspect in both The Wars and All Quiet on the Western Front. Significantly, these two novels are based on World War I, however, each tells a story from different sides of the battlefield. On one hand, The Wars written by Timothy Findlay focuses on the protagonist Robert Ross, a Canadian soldier who joins the war for the Allies after his sister’s death as a way of isolating himself, and on the other hand, we have All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque, in which the story is told by Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who has been convinced by his misguided teacher to volunteers for war as a courageous act. War dehumanizes us, where we become like animals in order to survive, which leads to our destruction. What this means is that war takes all our feelings and moral values thus replacing it with just instincts like an animal to survive. But in the end, life becomes difficult to cope with therefore leads to our destruction.
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An aspect that touches both these novels is about a generation of “men who were destroyed by war” (Wagner 12) even though they escaped their shells. Findley and Remarque both imply that they do not want to tell us about the war experiences of young people, at least not solely, but rather the destructive impact it has on a soldier; such as the inability of young people to successfully cope with their life after the war. Remarque uses his war experiences to justify his own lack of professional success after the war, his inability to choose a solid career, and particularly his initial lack of success as a writer immediately following the war years (Wagner 12). There is no doubt that an entire generation ruined by war and unable to function contribute to the book’s success. Many readers were readily able to identify with the novel’s heroes and found a readymade justification for their own inability to cope with life after the war.
When Paul returns home on his seven-day leave, he describes them as unhappy personal experiences. When he fails to see an old major on the street, he is forced to go back and salute him according to military etiquette. This occurs to Paul as petty harassment. And the reality of the front and the dream world of those who have stayed at home are contrasted time and again. For Baumer, it is already an embarrassment that his father would prefer him to wear a uniform so that he could proudly present his heroic so to his acquaintances. For Baumer, such a demonstration would constitute a misrepresentation of the reality of war. His father wants Paul to use his front-line experiences. But Paul insists that it is too dangerous to remind himself of the war because he cannot cope with its reality.
This goes the same for The Wars; many soldiers were destroyed after seeing the reality of war. “…frozen fingers of nameless rivers, heralded by steam and whirling snow, the train returned him to his heritage of farms…” (Findley 46) The steam from the train could signify the anger that was built up inside of the soldiers after witnessing the death of some of their fellow troops and then having to leave their corpses unburied, while they moved on in hopes of winning the war.
A further way in which the topic of destruction affects the soldier is through betrayal by the older generation. The youth’s belief that their elders have greater insight and wisdom was shattered by their sight of the first war casualties. They love their country but have begun to see how they have been betrayed. It is the old generation that declares war and never, physically, fights it; however, it is the youth that spills their own blood for them. And it is absurd that these human beings, viewed as dire men by the old generation, have been transformed into enemies by the signing of a document by some unknown person.
An example of betrayal can be seen in The Wars, when Robert has been betrayed by Taffler, who up until the brothel part, saw him as a manly figure to follow, however after the incident at the hotel, Robert’s view of Taffler as a strong soldier and a role model shattered.
Robert also later signifies his rape experience to the soldiers and how they were raped by their so-called leaders. “It has to be there because it is my belief that Robert Ross and his generation of young men were raped, in effect, by the people who made the war. Basically, their fathers did it to them.” (Findley 150-51) “Fathers” would most likely be the people in power at the time who controlled over the young generation, and who were told to slaughter their so-called enemy. All Quiet on the Western Front also contradicts the old generation. However, aside from being betrayed by the older generation, Paul also feels that he has been betrayed by his teacher.
“For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity . . . to the future . . . in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with greater insight and more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. . . . The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it, the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.” (Remarque 78)
In this quote, Paul learned that educators who were supposed to guide the younger generation into the world of adulthood, into the world of work, duty, culture and progress, have failed. All that these teachers had taught them, their entire world, view crumpled during the first artillery barrage. The older generation, which is constantly mocking young generation for signs of cowardice or unpatriotic conduct but they have not themselves experienced the war, has no understanding of what the fighting is actually like. The younger generation must make their own choice between right and wrong seeing how the older generation has proved itself incapable of teaching them.
Another topic to these novels is also alluded to; namely, that of survival in war. Any survival will at best be a physical survival and can never be emotional or psychological. Robert Ross does a good job at surviving the war on the battlefront; however, it is ironic to see the very same people (allies) he fought with end up basically killing him. It is also ironic of how he did not die in action, but rather in a barn set on fire. Robert constantly sees destruction around him and he is afraid he might not survive “On the far side he could see that the men and the wagons and the rest of the convoy were drawn up near fires and he just kept thinking: warm, I am going to be warm.” (Findley 82) This seems to refer to the desperation that Robert and the rest of the troops have in order to remain alive.
Similar to The Wars, Paul and his friends also struggle to survive the wrenched war. In his very first chapter Remarque jumps into the war action: “We were at rest five miles behind the front” (Remarque 3). The “we” do not clearly specify whether it could be the German army or Paul’s friends. Unlike The Wars where the main characters are described as athletic, strong, fearless men such as Robert and Taffler, Remarque does not present his soldiers in the novel as complete, psychologically/physical developed characters. Each is merely characterized as having universal human qualities that appear as a dominant and recurring theme in the text; for example in Paul’s group, there is Tjaden who is the biggest eater, Westhus has continuous thoughts of women, Detering missing his farm and etc. Their own universal human qualities prove to be a greater enemy than of those on the other side of no man’s land. In order for them to survive, the soldiers feel that together they have formed a brotherhood of comrades trying to survive in an arena of death. Their activities are reduced to a mere act of survival and are therefore restricted to that which is absolutely necessary. All other expressions are dormant, as the only concern is that life is on a constant watch against the threat of death. Men have become dull in order to prevent a breakdown in face of horrors.
Hunger is another aspect of survival in All Quiet on the Western Front. Paul states that only 80 out of 150 men in the “Second Company” return back to the camp from the front lines in the first chapter. The remaining 80 soldiers are happy to receive food for 150 men. “Stomach” and “digestion” are repeatedly mentioned and become the two most important themes for the soldiers (Wagner 13). Because the soldiers were “happy to receive more food” rather than sad and angry that they lost 70 men, it tells the reader that food was really scarce during those times.
Dehumanizing is a necessary element of survival in war, had soldiers gone into the trenches without a period of time of training most of them would certainly have gone mad or dead for that matter. Dehumanization is portrayed in both All Quiet on the Western Front and The Wars, however, Paul has trouble dehumanizing through the book, and it isn’t until later when he is pushed to his limits and snaps, therefore, making him do awful things; like shooting Capitan Leather in the face. Referring back to All Quiet on the Western Front Paul describes the psychological transformation that soldiers undergo when heading into battle:
“We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what so we know of men in this moment when Death with hands and helmets is hunting us down….We feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and be revenged” (Remarque 113)
They stop becoming good-tempered soldiers and instead become beasts. To survive, it is necessary for the soldiers to sacrifice the thoughtful and logical parts of their minds and rely only on animal instinct. The same process of dehumanization can be seen in The Wars; however, dehumanization becomes a problem for Robert. He is too sensitive to be able to turn like an animal and perform manly jobs. This is seen through his concern about animals, and he tries to find and follow a role model to become manlier but it doesn’t really happen up until he sees the horses being bombed in the stables at Battalion Signals, in which he snaps. His anger had risen to such a high level that it caused him to shoot Capital Leather in between his eyes. He also refers to the soldiers as animals because they are so ruthless and oblivious to the harm they do to everything, which Robert becomes after shooting Cpt. Leather. But the interesting thing is that he turned into an animal in order to save animals.
“his anger rose to such a pitch that he feared he was going to go over into madness. He stood where the gate had been and he thought: ‘If an animal had done this – we would call it mad and shoot it’ and at that precise moment Capitan Leather rose to his knees and began to struggle to his feet. Robert shot him between the eyes.” (Findley 178)
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The conclusion is, of course, is that war had a deep impact on the young generation. “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.” (Remarque 267) The physical involvement of war changes a person dramatically. Soldiers such as Robert and Paul realize that they have changed under the impact of war experience, they are alienated, a feeling of not belonging, an inability to connect with the past. As a result, they instinctively want to go back into the trenches because nothing else seems to connect with them anymore. And so the broken (Paul & Robert) soldier returns to his frontline where he becomes an animal again, only this time, survival is short-lived.
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