Psychological Effects of War in all Quiet on the Western Front
Humanity is found in the ability to feel human emotion. In Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, war breaks down this ability. Paul Baumer and his comrades are brought into World War I feeling motivated and a great sense of patriotism. Spirits are high, and they feel that they will go in, fight, and quickly get out. However, it doesn’t go as they thought, dragging on for years, slowly breaking down the soldiers that are fighting it. They suffer greatly, and transform in the process. Paul and his comrades fight through horrible living conditions, their regression to animal instinct, and their repressed emotions, leaving them shells of their former selves.
The soldiers become adjusted to terrible food, filth, and infestation, breaking down their very humanity. Along the front, Paul recounts how the food has effected the troops: “But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill… dysentery dissolves our bowels” (Remarque 280). The food that Paul and his comrades are provided tears their bodies apart. The food is not real, and it is so poor in quality that it makes the soldiers sick. Yet, they suffer through it, and are forced to keep fighting. When Paul gets injured and needs to be transported on a train to hospital, he has an issue getting into the bed: “I cast a glance at the bed. It is covered with clean snow-white linen, that has even got the marks of the iron still on it. And my shirt has gone six weeks without being washed and is terribly muddy” (245-246). Having clean sheets strikes Paul as extraordinary. Paul is not comfortable getting in a clean bed, being himself very dirty. He struggles to comprehend cleanliness, not having access to be able to bathe or have clean clothing. The little food that the soldiers do have, they often have to fight vermin to keep: “We must look out for our bread. The rats have become much more numerous lately because the trenches are no longer in good condition” (102). Not only do the soldiers not have food, but they are forced to fight off an infestation of rats that come after the little food they do have. The rats come in massive numbers, and overrun the soldiers’ camps. The rats cause the soldiers more stress, and make their lives even worse. War changes the soldiers lives, leaving them struggling to survive.
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Hoping to have any chance at survival, the soldiers become more animal than human, leaving them husks of the people they were. Having arrived at the front, Paul and the other troops are transformed; “The moment that the first shells whistle over in the air is rent with the explosions there is suddenly in our veins, in our eyes a tense waiting, a watching, a heightening alertness, a strange sharpening of the senses” (54). The troops become engulfed in the reality of their surroundings upon arrival at the front. They become tense, anxious, changed by the front and all the chaos that surrounds them. The troops are no longer themselves when they arrive at the front. When considering taking his friend Kemmerich’s boots as he is dying, Paul rationalizes: “Only the facts are real and important for us. And good boots are scarce” (21). The emotional weight that taking a dying man’s boots carries has become irrelevant to Paul as he becomes battle-hardened. He has to disconnect from emotion to stay rational and sane. Actions such as this are justified by this ultra realistic point of view. As he is fighting at the front, Paul realizes: “If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him” (114). The instinct to survive trumps over everything for Paul. He does not fight to beat the enemy, he fights to save himself. For that reason, he will kill anyone. His instinct is strong, and his instinct is everything.
War changes the way that soldiers respond to trauma, leaving them numbed and hopeless. Having just left battle, Paul deals with the reality of his dead comrades: “But our comrades are dead, we cannot help them, they have their rest—and who knows what is waiting for us? We will make ourselves comfortable and sleep, and eat as much as we can stuff into our bellies, and drink and smoke so that the hours are not wasted. Life is short” (139). Paul prioritizes himself over the remembrance of his friends. He devalues their deaths in an attempt to block himself from feeling any emotions, as those would cause him to not be able to continue fighting. Paul is forced to detach himself from the memory of his friends. Having had his best friend Kat just died, Paul wonders: “Do I walk? Have I feet still? I raise my eyes, let them move round, and turn myself with them, one circle, one circle, and I stand in the midst. All is usual. Only the Militiaman Stanislaus Katczinsky has died” (291). Kat was Paul’s best friend, and his death leaves Paul extremely confused. However, rather than mourning, Paul minimizes the event, detaching himself from the pain it would have otherwise caused. Paul does not allow himself to feel his emotions, as he is so emotionally damaged by the horrors he has experienced he does not understand them. In October 1918, Paul “…had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” (296). Paul is found to be happy at the time of his death. As a result of all the pain he experiences, death was a relief. Paul finally finds a release for everything he had held back. The emotions that Paul had built up yet not expressed left him a shell of himself, and glad to die.
As the war concludes, the soldiers are left as pieces of the people they were, becoming unkempt, instinctual, and unable to understand their own emotions. They lose their civility, becoming dirty and crude. They become animalistic, relying only on instinct, that being their only chance to survive. They lose track of their emotions, damaged so badly that they forget how to feel. World War I destroys Paul and his comrades.