THE BLOG
08/20/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

'All Quiet on the Western Front' - A Farewell to Arms, Legs, Youth and Hope

Can a WWI novel shame the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs into caring for the spotters, coordinators, trainers, and advisors who have to deal with the convert-or-die genocides of ISIS? Our institutions have not done well by those who were ill-advisedly dispatched to risk life and limbs in Iraq beginning in 2003.

Now, as we put reconnaissance and supply teams on terrorized ground for humanitarian objectives, our institutions at home have to gear up to address the PTSD afflictions that will surely result from trying to stop ISIS beheadings, crucifixions, and slaughters. Might a WWI novel inform preparations?

Two of the most notable novels about World War One were published in 1929, and they were written by those who saw some action in that war:

Infantryman Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on The Western Front tells of trenches; lethal gas and asphyxiations; explosions and amputations; wounded men desperate to avoid being chloroformed by saw-bones surgeons in chopping-block hospitals.

Ambulance-driver Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms tells of vermouth and brandy; privileged courtship; hospital room-service and semi-private copulation; desk clerks, concierge staff, maître ds and waiters; café menus and love-nest hotels.

Remarque wrote about allegiance and unselfishness. His infantryman narrator wishes he had never gone on leave - the home front (for all its comforts) had become alien.

Hemingway's ambulance-driver narrator and his nurse paramour are devoted to self-indulgence, and work hard at escaping their respective ambulance and hospital duties - and, the brutal, senseless, militarily-pointless sacrifices of large-scale life-taking.

Both novels are about farewells: the distinct difference is how the characters go about their leave-takings.

What is seen

All Quiet on The Western Front bears vivid witness to war's exactions: the mind's eye is wounded by the sight and sites of wounds: "A hospital alone shows what war is." On one floor, "the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations." In another wing, "the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds." On still another floor, there are the wounds that do in the eye, lungs, pelvis, testicles, and intestines. The mind's eye is escorted along those lines of beds, to be shown the many places and ways a soldier can be pierced and mutilated. On the floors are basins into which pus drips; basins which have to be emptied every few hours. Patients bleed as if from rapidly-emptying tubes.

There are dreaded gestures: A nurse tells a patient whose lungs have been shattered that he is being taken to the bandaging ward, but she makes the mistake of removing his tunic from a bedside hook - "placing it on the trolley too, so that she should not have to make two journeys." The patient "cries out feebly" - protesting the journey to the Dying Room, which is situated next to the mortuary.

For many, there was no medical escort to a dying room: Men stagger with their skulls blown open; drag themselves on splintered stumps; crawl with what limbs are left. Even without mouths, jaws, faces, and feet, some make it to an advanced dressing station. One tries to reinsert his intestines. Another had "held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death." The corpse-clogged battlefield earth is a "dripping, soaked, oily mass in which lie the yellow pools with red spiral streams of blood and into which the dead, wounded, and survivors slowly sink down."

The reader is allowed to spot the "high double wall of yellow, unpolished, brand-new coffins" that have been "stacked up against the longer side of a schoolhouse wall." The coffins "still smell of resin, and pine... there are at least a hundred."

Some bodies are so obliterated that a survivor remarks that stretcher bearers "could scrape them off the wall of the trench with a spoon and bury them in a mess-tin."

What is felt

Remarque recruits the reader to the ominous smoke and fog that shroud a battlefield; to the atmosphere of heightened dread; to the air that vibrates with threat and shudders to accentuate apprehension; to the bombarded earth and dug-outs that quake and heave; convulse, leap, and reverberate.

In summer, the reader stumbles over "slippery lumps of flesh." In winter, the reader ducks to avoid being struck by "frozen clods of earth" that can be "as dangerous as shell fragments and splinters."

In the trenches, the reader senses the revulsion brought on by rats that do not scurry; they brook no interruption as they feast on rotting rations, and corpses.

The reader can almost feel the lice - especially the lice that have been encased in a plaster cast by a surgeon who was already overwhelmed with soon-to-be corpses.

What is inhaled

There are sulphur fumes, "the stink of petroleum that blows across with the fumes of powder," and the searing of flesh ignited by a flame-thrower. There are "deathly exhalations and putrefaction" that cause nausea and retching among those who have somehow survived shot and shell.

What is heard

From the battlefield, the reader listens to the rasps and gasps of the dying, the calls for help, the cries of despair, the weeping, the croaking - and "one last gurgling rattle."

From a surgical tent, the reader hears a patient come out of anesthesia as "a screaming bundle of intolerable pain. Every day he lives will be a howling torture."

No cordoning off can mask the sufferings of those who have been gassed; "who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots."

Post-Traumatic Stress

In the prologue to his celebrated 1929 novel, Erich Maria Remarque declared that the book was not to be thought of as either "an accusation or a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it."

It was Remarque's 1917 front-line face-to-face engagements that, as an 18-year-old, informed his accounts and abhorrences. Those reverberations were meant to make the home front aware of the discomfiture of returnees who "though they may have escaped the war's shells, were [nevertheless] destroyed by them."

The novel's narrator - whose war experiences and wounds seem to parallel Remarque's - has a psychological armory that is increasingly stocked with realizations and resupplied with regrets: Even as bitterness and insanities "sink down in us like a stone, while we are still in the war," he understood that those thoughts "will awaken again, after the war." He explained, "Two years of shells and bombs - a man won't peel that off as easy as a sock."

A 14-day pass and home leave is but "a pause that only makes everything after it so much worse." The struggle for "disentanglement" is not something that those back home can fathom.

Can the Home Front begin to fathom the Front?

Remarque explained that, in action, the infantryman became an automaton. On leave, there is space and time for him to think about random misfortunes: There was the classmate who died following the amputation of his leg: "If only his leg had been six inches to right." And there was the soldier who had been blown out of his clothes: "If only he had run two yards farther to the left..." Another, diving to claw into the possible shield of earth, might have lived "had his back bent three inches further forward."

Can these accounts help those at home more fully grasp that for the bombarded and imperiled, whose finger-nails clawed for earthen refuge, "life" became "simply one continual watch against the menace of death"? How best to convey the dulling and inuring that transformed family members and friends "into unthinking animals" who develop "the weapon of instinct"?

That "weapon," Remarque explained, was reinforced with a "dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror, which would overwhelm us if we had clear, conscious thought." The madness corresponded to "the indifference of wild creatures."

With indifference embedded, how could such a creature return to a semblance of a normal life? The narrator is not sanguine about adjusting to home life, should an armistice be reached, and he survive to welcome it: "We will not be able to find our way anymore."

New Rescue and Recovery missions

For those in VA hospitals, there are still psychological and emotional armistices to be negotiated. The resolution of those conflicts will require reinforcements by medical and psychological personnel - fresh troops (and new command structures) in a battle to retake stable, sane, ground; especially as new casualties are about to be suffered.