The Argument of All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, has been hailed by many, especially critics writing for large Western newspapers, as “the greatest war novel of all time.” In the United States, you will find it on almost any middle school’s or high school’s reading list. We must suspect, then, that it contains within it a teaching that is largely supportive of the liberal world order; and indeed, it does not disappoint our rightly founded suspicion.
The novel is tightly organized around one central theme or argument: war must be abolished, forever. There are three main ways he tries to establish his claim. First, he lingers on the genuinely morbid, ugly, and heart-wrenching parts of war. Second, he claims that war necessarily turns men into depraved animals. And finally, he claims that wars do not occur between peoples; rather, cruel elites dress their young men up in arbitrary uniform colors and compel them to kill over petty disagreements.
In this first part, I will try to sympathetically bring to light Remarque’s core contentions; and then in the second part, I will try to show why, despite his humanitarian hopes, the world is better off morally and spiritually if war between peoples remains a potentiality.
Morbidity: Suffering and Death
One of the earliest scenes in the book features the narrator, Paul Baumer, watching over his dear friend Kemmerich, who is slowly and painfully dying after having his leg amputated. That might be hard enough to bear, but the ugliness is intensified by the callousness of those around Kemmerich. His friend Muller waits impatiently for Kemmerich to bequeath him his boots. The doctors wait impatiently for him to die so that his bed can be used for someone else; they have to be bribed in order to give him pain-killers. Remarque wants us to think: how could we possibly put young men in a position where necessity presses upon them with so much force that they must wait like hyenas for a dying friend’s boots?
Remarque’s own words from a passage characteristic of the book:
“We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell hole; a lance corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end.” (pg 134).
Similar statements are common throughout the book, though they come out most starkly while the narrator recovers from a ghastly wound in a Catholic hospital; indeed the remarks there may be even more gruesome than what I have quoted above. No one can deny to any veteran of a war like this that men suffered such things. And such details should surely make any leader hesitate or at least approach any war in full awareness of the costs that are demanded of his people. In this way, Remarque makes his strongest argument, though below I will show why it is not sufficient.
However this may be, Remarque suggests that such morbidity is not by any means the only cost associated with war.
Depravity: War Turns Men into Animals
All Quiet on the Western Front is replete with comparisons of men to animals. The narrator insists that such comparisons do NOT remain within the realm of simile or likeness; rather, he holds that men BECOME depraved and undignified through participating in war and thus BECOME animals through no fault of their own. Brave men and cowardly, just and unjust, noble and base, all alike are compelled to become less than human through war.
The narrator brings this theme out early in the book, gently at first, and with repeatedly more force as the novel progresses. The first mention: “At the sound of the first droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected” (56). This passage almost makes it sound as if the return to instinct is a kind of enhancement of our ordinary capacities. But later, the narrator interprets things differently: “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation” (113). Note that he does not say he is like a wild beast, rather he IS a wild beast. The crushing pressure of external circumstance has begun to transform these men:
“it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct–it has reinforced us with dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror, which would overwhelm us if we had clear, conscious thought–it has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude–it has lent us the indifference of wild creatures, so that in spite of all, we perceive the positive in every moment, and and store it up as a reserve against the onslaught of nothingness” (274).
Here the narrator describes the awakened animals instincts as self-protection against the worst possible circumstances. I wonder though, if he goes too far in his description of what it is like to be as an animal. That is, he seems to think animals live terrifying lives with precious moments in between existentially torturous moments. This, I think, is a mistaken view–it cuts against another mistaken view that Nature is just a beautiful and peaceful place where nothing bad happens. But the narrator forgets that animals play and joyfully develop their inborne powers that they feel in their blood. He forgets as well, that the capacity to be a warrior is an inborne potentiality of man, that some men feel in a need to pursue in their blood.
War is Arbitrary
After making his case that war is excessively morbid and that men become less than human, Remarque tries to intensify the power of these claims by saying that the suffering caused by them is utterly needless and indeed, arbitrary. The narrator suggests that no one who has actually experienced war would advocate for it. Those, like the narrator’s old teacher, Kantorek, become cheerleaders, and tell boys to go to war in a way “that costs him nothing” (12). Prior to the experience of war, the narrator associated Kantorek and those of his generation with “great insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief” (12). The horror of war shattered their belief in the wisdom and therewith the authority of older generations.
It is this reflection on the fallibility of their forebearers which prepares further assaults on the integrity of any political leader who sends young men to die in war. The narrator and his friends agree that the wrong men do the fighting. They suppose that the generals and ministers of two countries ought to fight things out with clubs, with the survivors claiming victory (41). This naïve argument makes some false assumptions about war. It assumes, like Immanuel Kant (in Perpetual Peace) and Woodrow Wilson (see his WWI “War Message”) that war is fought between the rulers or leaders of states, not between peoples. Furthermore, the thought experiment assumes that states are not trying to gain very much through war. That is, if Germany wants to control all of France’s territory, will the French suddenly give up Paris now that a few ministers are dead? Or will they will they just go back on their word and defend their territory with the full force of their army? The thought experiment depends on an abstraction from the reality that space is owned by those with the physical power to hold it. Killing a few generals doesn’t significantly alter this reality. The thought experiment is childish or naïve.
Much later, after the narrator and his friends have much more experience of war, they permit themselves to ask: why do wars start at all? One man ventures the answer that one country offends another—to which a cheeky character responds: “I am not offended. Perhaps I shall go home” (204). The group rallies around this answer and elaborates: “Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers” (205). This answer would be at home with men who have been habituated to seeing themselves principally as consenting individuals. That is, they feel they have a right to not have any obligations or duties placed on them contrary to those they have actively chosen to take on. They don’t see that they are born with an obligation to defend their nation. And furthermore, as the last quotation suggests, these individuals will find their fulfillment through economic or commercial activities. Political life is reducible to economic life. And this assumption leads to the idea that borders and peoples are arbitrary expressions of power designed to benefit the ruling class.
To briefly restate what I take the argument of the book to be: the horror of war, the depravity it induces, and the arbitrary reasons that bring about these evils, lead the narrator to claim that he will devote his life to doing anything he can to put an end to war (263). Remarque intensifies the emotional punch of this argument through having his narrator die on the last day of the war (296).
Why Do Men Fight in Wars?
I will try to make my case against Remarque’s argument as concisely as possible, and I may expand on why war needs to remain an option and perennial possibility in a future piece.
Another sub-argument that Remarque employs to demonstrate the arbitrariness of war is his suggestion, that, once you get to know them, all peoples are pretty much the same. This is not true. That is to say, different and unique ways of life emerged throughout the world as various responses of certain types of peoples to varying external conditions. These ways of life are for the sake of some good, and we know well that the goods valued by one people are often at odds with the goods valued by another. The narrator seems to suggest, then, that some kind of universal understanding or agreement on the good is possible if selfish rulers lose the power to declare war, and hand over power to “the people” who are essentially good, or at least not vicious, and who would be rational enough not to send themselves to war.
In this way, the narrator points to something like universal liberal democracy as the key to ending war. That is, it is the form of government that is the fundamental cause of war. This is a mistake. Something Remarque ignores, and something that most liberals and conservatives ignore today, is that the cause of many wars and new ideologies, is the desire to DESTROY liberalism. From its very inception, different groups have assembled to oppose liberal democracy. The Holy Alliance, that is, European monarchs, got together to try to snuff out democracy after the horrors of the French Revolution. Communism appeared as another moral response to what Marx and others saw as the moral depravity (even if a necessary stage) of liberal capitalism. Fascism appeared when young men in Germany and elsewhere looked around in horror at the thought that liberalism and communism might try to extinguish the seriousness of the world by eliminating the very possibility of a fatherland or a people. And in our day, we have seen Sayyid Qutb write a pamphlet on “The America I have Seen” in order to encourage the Islamic world to oppose modernity and the US, in a spiritual and military struggle.
All that is to say: serious people from the Right and the Left, from religious fanatics to secular nihilists, have opposed the promotion of liberalism so vehemently that they have risked and sacrificed their lives to prevent its spread. As Carl Schmitt and others have pointed out, liberalism attempts to remove the friend/enemy distinction from political life. Schmitt seems to think that, if such a thing is possible, then moral seriousness will vanish from life, and reduce life to a bug-like quest for entertainment.
Aren’t you most proud of your accomplishments that required you to expend all of your effort? That is, we admire accomplishments that require struggle, that require the defeat of mighty obstacles. We call those who regularly endure and overcome such mighty trials heroes. To extinguish war is to prevent the excellence of one of the highest human types, the warrior, from expressing his excellence. And, as the Son of Sorel (@LazyRadical1) has brought out, warriors are the foundation of the West.
I will cast one final arrow at Remarque. The logic of liberalism as it is presently conceived, is to bring about a world state. Bug men like Alexander Wendt have written articles and given youtube talks on why a world state is both inevitable and desirable. But we know that a homogenized world state will be a technocratic slum-world. Most political communities are what Moldbug would call “adaptive fictions.” They accommodate their stories and actions to changing circumstances in order to persist indefinitely if possible: just think of woke capital as a primary example. The US just absorbs potential enemy ideas and incorporates shallow toothless versions of them into its existing institutions. A World State, not wishing to perish, will naturally not allow powerful dissenting ideas to get off of the ground. And technology will allow new and more powerful forms of surveillance to take place. The Han Plague has already led the West to consider putting microchips in people… A World State of this kind would not only extinguish war, but perhaps even the possibility of philosophy in the strictest sense, as the quest to understand nature.
There will be more to say about this soon, but suffice it to say: Remarque does indeed make helpful arguments for why we ought to be cautious in choosing our wars. The costs are very real and shouldn’t be dismissed. But, he doesn’t fully think through the big picture and the many deep spiritual and moral costs that would attend the extinguishing of war from the world.