Now the world is gone, I’m just one

About halfway through chapter 10 of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Baumer (the narrator) and his friend Albert Kropp are both injured while in combat and their injuries are so bad that they wind up in the hospital. It provides an opportunity for the novel’s author, Erich Maria Remarque to show yet another side of war, as he draws upon his own experience in the First World War to illustrate exactly what a soldier would have gone through. There are moments of horror (men who are maimed) and sadness (Kropp has his foot amputated and declares he will commit suicide), but also camaraderie (the guys provide necessary cover so a fellow patient named Lewandowski can have sex with his wife) and triumph (a fellow patient declares that he will beat “the dying room” and does so, returning the next day), and they continue serve to give the reader the very well-rounded view of World War I that he promised at the beginning of the novel.

My advanced English class is nearly finished with the discussion of the novel. We have spent the last six class days with student-led discussions called “read and leads,” where a group of 2-3 students are essentially the teacher for the day–they spend a solid 30-35 minutes analyzing the text, asking the questions, and taking everyone through that particular part of the book while I sit in the back of the room taking notes and occasionally offering a word or two up until the end when I have some questions of my own. The only part of the class that I really take charge of is the beginning, which I usually use for admin/housekeeping stuff, but for our study of All Quiet, I have been bringing in poetry and songs that are from or about that era.

For the most part, they have been of the time. We’ve read the poetry of Edgar Guest and Wilfred Owen, and have also spent time “In Flanders Fields.” The songs have been the most notable from the First World War–“It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Over There,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Oh, and Metallica. If you are unfamiliar with “One,” it is the fourth track on Metallica’s 1988 album, … And Justice For All. The lyrics are partially inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun (which is a reference to “Over There”) and are from the point of a soldier who has had most of his senses taken from him as a result of a land mine. He cannot really communicate but his mind is completely intact, so he is lost in his own mind. The instrumentation starts out slow and eventually gains speed, with the drums and guitar mimicking machine-gun fire. The music video–Metallica’s first-ever–used footage from Trumbo’s movie adaptation of his novel intercut with the band performing in what looks like an abandoned warehouse.

After we finish chapter 10, I always play “One.” While the long hair and head-banging in the video are a bit dated (when he heard the heavy guitar coming through the wall, the teacher next door to me came into the room, made the devil horns sign and started head banging Beavis and Butt-head style), the imagery is striking enough for just about anyone to get the song’s point. Remarque is a bit more subtle or at least even-handed in his approach, even if Paul’s narration does get overwrought at times (but come on, he’s a 20-year-old guy who’d studied to be a writer), but the idea is the same. While even in our modern culture we are more attuned to the more negative aspects of war and not always willing to swallow cheerleading-style propaganda (although that’s not entirely true), it might be possible to ignore the true details and the true human emotion of it. The discussion that has come out of the second half of the novel has been insightful and even emotional at times.

The weight of the book–which gets heavier as it goes on until the point where Paul has more or less lost any hope that he or anyone in his generation will be able to function or be understood after the war is over (if they survive). In “One,” the narrator is beyond even where Paul is, and by having something more modern and more visual, it reinforced the theme and helped provide a bridge to my point of the theme of the striking reality of war being a universal theme. Plus, the song can be studied with other war literature or in and of itself as a way to delve into the mind of a soldier who is dealing with his own anonymity in the aftermath of war, which can be a scary experience.

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