A couple of weeks ago, amidst the coverage of the death and funeral of Whitney Houston, a friend of mine posted a picture to Facebook that I’m sure has been shared and re-shared a few times. The picture, which I’ve included at right, is of a soldier handing a kid a flag that was obviously draped over a casket and the caption reads “Tell Me Again how Whitney Houston inspires you and is a hero.”
I know why it’s made the rounds–it was meant to help those clicking on it gain perspective because we put our entertainers (whether they be singers, actors, or athletes) on a pedestal more than our “everyday” heroes such as policemen, firefighters, or soldiers, but since I am soulless and dead inside I found myself rolling my eyes.
On Friday, my advanced English class began the same way it always does–with morning announcements. We also had video announcements that day, and those began the same way they always do, which is with a song played over a welcome screen. That day’s song was “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and while it was playing I made a pithy comment about the announcements being useful for once because it tied into our discussion for the day, a wrap-up of All Quiet on the Western Front. After announcements were over and I could finally begin my lesson, I asked the class if they knew the song (most did) and if they knew how the song was ironic. A few did but most didn’t so I mentioned the story found in the lyrics about a vet who comes home from Vietnam and has very little to come home to, something that was very true in the 1970s and 1980s and is also true about Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I Germany (I also mentioned how there’s a different version on Springsteen’s boxed set Tracks and I’ll be playing that tomorrow once I put it on my iPod), which is what makes All Quiet as relevant today as it was when the Nazis burned it in the 1930s.
The soldier, as I pointed out when we transitioned from talking about “Born in the U.S.A.” to Paul Baumer’s thoughts at the end of the novel, is human and that is the point that Remarque takes nearly 300 pages to make, after starting us off with an epigraph that is more like an abstract than anything else, saying that the purpose of the novel is to: “… try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” One of the class’s paper options will be to evaluate this statement and show how Remarque stuck to his stated purpose of showing war’s reality or veered off his path by writing something that was a protest.
I focused more on the role of the soldier and view of the soldier, which Remarque doesn’t seem to take negatively or positively. He’s indeed cynical but more cynical to the nature of war itself and those who sent those boys off to war (represented in Kantorek, the main characters’ teacher, who spends his class time giving rousing speeches about serving the Fatherland) than he is toward the average soldier. In fact, if he has any feelings toward that soldier, it’s empathy (Remarque did serve and was wounded in World War I) and he obviously wants us to get inside the rather tormented head of that soldier, whom the generals and government think of not as a person but as an insignificant, replaceable number in a trench. Read the rest of this entry »