Saturday, March 24, 2012

Come, Gentle Peace

Talking about war reminded me how much I like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, about WWI.

For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a 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. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.

I interned for a time cataloguing artifacts of a World War II training camp, at a period when the 50th anniversary of D-Day was coming up and many of the veterans were still alive to be interviewed. I’ve always wondered what made their war portrayed so differently in the media, when I’ve read enough books to know that WWII was as horrific as any war. I think there was a special brand of American pluckiness during that time that wouldn’t allow these soldiers to come home and admit how awful it is to shoot and be shot at. I don’t think they particularly did future generations a favor by mostly portraying war as a football game.

Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why did they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up – take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.


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