All Quiet on the Western Front
Powerful. Awful. While Remarque’s narrator constantly describes his feelings, and there are a few passages of introspection, they never become an anti-war diatribe. Rather action and dialogue carry us along, and they feel, as they are, like the vivid recollections of someone who survived years as a German soldier in WW1. There is little need for argument – the unadorned depiction of days in training, in combat, on leave, and waiting around – is plenty.
It’s a thousand miles from the noble romantic myths of glorious knights – or the patriotic nonsense of a whole genre of Hollywood action flicks. It’s also, interestingly, a long way even from Spike Milligan’s war memoirs; the latter avoids the despair of someone on the losing side, who can’t even say their efforts achieved something, and who isn’t able to meet up with most of his comrades ‘afterwards’ because most are dead. Instead Remarque nails the senselessness of it: what sort of victory is it when it includes the wholesale butchery of innocents? And ‘innocents’ includes soldiers: we still have that parochial sense that someone with a uniform on is a droid without family or identity, merely an evil character in a video game; Remarque, particularly in his own time, utterly overturned that.