November 11 is Armistice Day, the day in 1918 when the fighting in what was then known as The Great War, came to a stop. It took until June 28, 1919 for the Treaty of Versailles to be signed, which means that we are only just now coming to the end of centennial observances.
But of course, we’ve been living with The Great War all along.
I grew up when World War II imagery was still in the air, something to divert us from the messy ambiguities of the Vietnam War. It took me until I was an adult, writing a book about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to realize that the First World War never really ended. The shocking way it was conducted and the arbitrary lines it threw upon the world led to a century of new horrors and new wars.
Recently I’ve been returning to this history in my reading with Barbara Tuchman as my eye in the sky. Tuchman’s The Guns of August is one of those rare books I’ve read multiple times. Her book covers a narrow span of time in the summer of 1914 when the grand alliances of Europe disintegrated into war. The scale and folly is like a wreck you can’t pull your eyes away from. Though it was written in the 1960s, it is really a timeless novel of human hubris. You leave with a sense of fear that it could all happen again.
All the more so when you pair it with her book, The Proud Tower, which chronicles all the major player nations in the run-up to the war. The North Atlantic world at the height of its pre-war optimism seems destined to fall and its ills are disturbingly familiar–the frenzy of Dreyfus Era anti-semitism in France, the endless international conferences professing peace but subverted by national self-interest, even the high art of Germany’s greatest composer of the era, Strauss, which thrilled the stage in London even as an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo was bringing down the curtain on an era.
Then there is the up-close and bloody view of the war.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the English class classics I was supposed to have read but somehow never did. It is remarkable because it became a classic in the English-speaking world even though it is written from the perspective of Baumer, a German soldier stationed on the Western Front during World War I. Published in 1928, between the two world wars, it remains fresh, disturbing, and sadly timeless. The means of waging war may have changed, but the effect on those who fight them has not.
“This book is…least of all an adventure,” Remarque writes in the epigraph. “It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
The sad thing is, hardly any one does escape the shells in this book, including (spoiler alert!) Baumer who dies on the last page “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.” Mostly it is not quiet. Bodies are broken and strewn across a ghastly landscape. In the opening chapter, Baumer and his friends go to visit poor Kemmerich in the hospital whose wounds will soon take his life. They offer comfort even as they covet his fine boots that he will never need again.
What Remarque captures so well is the way that the war can never truly be left behind. Even on leave back in his hometown, Baumer feels disconnected and unmoored by his experiences on the front that are thrown into sharp relief by the unreality of old securities. He knows, even in the moment, that “all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.”
As the methods of killing, for some, have become more remote in our century, the moral injury caused by this contrast between death and daily life is even more stark. Drone operators in Las Vegas watch their lethal work on the other side of the world unfold on screens and then go home to put the kids to bed. How are they disentangling the disparate threads of their lives?
We’ve seen war in movies so often now, and so graphically displayed, that it comes as a surprise to see it anew in Remarque’s work. It is as senseless as it ever has been. And we still lament the loss. “We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world,” Baumer says, “and we had to shoot it to pieces.”