A couple of weeks ago, amidst the coverage of the death and funeral of Whitney Houston, a friend of mine posted a picture to Facebook that I’m sure has been shared and re-shared a few times. The picture, which I’ve included at right, is of a soldier handing a kid a flag that was obviously draped over a casket and the caption reads “Tell Me Again how Whitney Houston inspires you and is a hero.” I know why it’s made the rounds–it was meant to help those clicking on it gain perspective because we put our entertainers (whether they be singers, actors, or athletes) on a pedestal more than our “everyday” heroes such as policemen, firefighters, or soldiers, but since I am soulless and dead inside I found myself rolling my eyes.
On Friday, my advanced English class began the same way it always does–with morning announcements. We also had video announcements that day, and those began the same way they always do, which is with a song played over a welcome screen. That day’s song was “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and while it was playing I made a pithy comment about the announcements being useful for once because it tied into our discussion for the day, a wrap-up of All Quiet on the Western Front. After announcements were over and I could finally begin my lesson, I asked the class if they knew the song (most did) and if they knew how the song was ironic. A few did but most didn’t so I mentioned the story found in the lyrics about a vet who comes home from Vietnam and has very little to come home to, something that was very true in the 1970s and 1980s and is also true about Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I Germany (I also mentioned how there’s a different version on Springsteen’s boxed set Tracks and I’ll be playing that tomorrow once I put it on my iPod), which is what makes All Quiet as relevant today as it was when the Nazis burned it in the 1930s.
The soldier, as I pointed out when we transitioned from talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” to Paul Baumer’s thoughts at the end of the novel, is human and that is the point that Remarque takes nearly 300 pages to make, after starting us off with an epigraph that is more like an abstract than anything else, saying that the purpose of the novel is to: “… try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” One of the class’s paper options will be to evaluate this statement and show how Remarque stuck to his stated purpose of showing war’s reality or veered off his path by writing something that was a protest. I focused more on the role of the soldier and view of the soldier, which Remarque doesn’t seem to take negatively or positively. He’s indeed cynical but more cynical to the nature of war itself and those who sent those boys off to war (represented in Kantorek, the main characters’ teacher, who spends his class time giving rousing speeches about serving the Fatherland) than he is toward the average soldier. In fact, if he has any feelings toward that soldier, it’s empathy (Remarque did serve and was wounded in World War I) and he obviously wants us to get inside the rather tormented head of that soldier, whom the generals and government think of not as a person but as an insignificant, replaceable number in a trench.
In fact, that insignificance hits home at the novel’s very end when Paul dies and his death isn’t even shown. There is just the following:
He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
The two film adaptations I’ve seen (the Oscar-winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV-movie version starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine) both give some hint as to how Paul died in the form of an off-screen gunshot, but I think they actually take away from the impact of the ending. We’ve spent so much time getting to know this character and being in his head as he slowly grows more and more depressed to the point where he feels that the world away from the war is an unknown place that his death being described so vaguely and in such an after-the-fact way is a stomach punch (in fact, a couple of years ago a student asked, “Wait, he died?”). Furthermore, the fact that his death wasn’t even noted drives home Remarque’s point. If I were adapting this for another film, I’d end with where Paul is in chapter 12–sitting in a hospital garden and thinking–and then cut to a title card that quotes exactly what Remarque wrote.
But that’s beside the point. When I teach the novel, I mention propaganda and portrayals of soldiers in the modern-day media as well as back then. I show a military recruitment ad that they’ve all seen before and ask them to look at how military life and “the mission” is shown. We listen to songs from the era (“Over There” seemed to be special torture to them). We read poems by Edgar Guest and Wilfred Owen to get differing points of view. And to bring it back to my friend and her Facebook post from a couple of weeks ago, I try to get a discussion going about how it can be dangerous to put soldiers on a pedestal and automatically label them as “heroes” just for signing up.
That’s not to denigrate the men and women of our armed forces, however. I agree that those who were spit on after coming home from Vietnam have a right to be angry because that sort of disrespect is wrong (especially when those doing the spitting probably should have looked toward people in Washington, not some kid from Fresno). But when you do the opposite and genuflect toward every man and woman in uniform, you might be showing support but you might also be doing them a similar disservice because they are not people but soldiers–or as the thousands upon thousands of faded and peeling yellow-ribbon magnets I’ve seen on our highways in the last decade say, “the troops.” It’s a way to think about them without actually having to really think about them. Three-hundred pages about a soldier, even if he is fighting a war 100 years ago and for a country we fought against in that very war, hopefully gives students some more perspective and moves them away from the bumper-sticker politics that so infests our national conversation. It’s not an easy task, as students often balk at lengthy literary texts, and my success rate with All Quiet on the Western Front is not 100% (nothing ever is), but I love teaching it because of its potential for an eye-opener and the hope that maybe they’ll think twice before automatically clicking “share” on the latest sanctimonious Facebook post.