If you’re reading this column on Saturday, you almost certainly know it’s Veteran’s Day. Perhaps you attended the parade at the Putnam County courthouse square yesterday, honoring all American veterans—living and dead–for their patriotism and sacrifice. On this day, it’s hard not to be discouraged that the armistice between the Allied Nations and Germany that went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 didn’t close the book on war, as so many had hoped it would.
Need proof that “the war to end all wars” didn’t? Look no further than Ukraine and Israel this very minute.
As I watch and read and listen to news about the heart-rending conflicts in those nations and elsewhere, I think back to last winter when I watched the 2022 Oscar-winning film “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Friends and I had taken a trip to warmer climes and, while perusing Netflix, decided on that movie. It was so intense and so upsetting that we decided to break our viewing into two nights just so we could stand it.
I haven’t read the best-selling 1928 novel of the same name, written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. I’ve seen neither the 1930 or the 1979 film adaptation of the novel. But I’ll never forget the version I did see.
The story is told through the eyes of a teenaged German soldier named Paul. He’s idealistic and intensely patriotic when he enlists in the Imperial German Army in 1918. He’s also blissfully unaware that the laundered-and-mended uniform issued to him once belonged to a soldier now dead and buried. Paul is soon sent to the Western Front, where his romantic and naïve view of war is quickly shattered by the reality of life in the trenches. His hopes of becoming a hero while serving the fatherland are shattered. He just wants to survive.
And here’s the thing. So does every other soldier, whichever side he’s fighting on. And for whatever cause. Paul isn’t a “bad guy.” He’s just a boy following orders. A pawn on a chess board. It doesn’t take long for him to understand just how expendable he really is.
SPOILER ALERT: In the movie’s shattering finale, with the armistice only hours away, General Friedrichs orders his men into senseless battle, willing to sacrifice them to almost-certain death to achieve the “glory” he so desperately craves. Paul is one of those men. Though Friedrichs is a fictional character, his thoughts and actions are tragically true-to-life. An estimated 11,000 soldiers on both sides of “The Great War”—including more than 3,000 men under the command of U.S. General John J. Pershing–were killed, wounded or unaccounted for on the morning of November 11before the armistice went into effect.
Why would a commander send his soldiers to their death when an official cease-fire is imminent? The possibilities boggle the mind. Maybe because of poor communication. Maybe because of blind ambition. Maybe because of intense hatred of the enemy. Worst of all, maybe because of the inexplicable “joy” of killing. But it’s for sure that the powers-that-be who–for no good reason–sent fighting forces into the fray were not, and rarely are, the ones being shot or stabbed or burned or drowned or blown to bits.
I challenge anyone with a heart in their chest to watch “All Quiet on the Western Front” and not be convinced of the senselessness and futility of war. Or to refuse to acknowledge that there likely never will be a war to end all wars. It’s a movie that will make you grateful beyond words for those who have served in our nation’s armed forces in the past, for those who serve now and those who will serve in the future.
We salute their patriotism and sacrifice, today and always.
(November 11, 2023)