Acquired Dispassion: A Close Reading of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
2 March 2018
Honor Code: Davidson Braswell
“All this can only have happened a little while ago, the blood is still fresh. As everybody we see there is dead we do not waste any more time, but report the affair at the next stretcher-bearers’ post. After all it is not our business to take these stretcher-bearers’ jobs away from them.”1
This passage from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front occurs as the protagonists of the story are travelling through the woods. I encountered some difficulty interpreting the word choice and ideas of the passage, even though the book uses language that is easy to understand. It comes after a gruesome description of the patrol’s encounter with fragments of dead bodies hanging from trees. A squad of German soldiers had been killed in a mortar attack. Upon discovery of the scene, the narrator and his comrades engage in banter where they remind one another to remain tough. Additionally, the episode is told as a brief digression from the whole story. An analysis of the passage reveals how the soldiers’ prolific combat experience has inured them to the world, each other, and themselves.
I was baffled at the narrator’s assertion that they “do not waste time,” when encountering the forest of mangled bodies.2 I assumed that the soldiers would react with horror, reverence, or both. However, an analysis of the preceding sentence offers insight into the soldiers’ seeming apathy. The passage begins with a definitive statement that the scene had occurred recently because the narrator observes that the “blood is still fresh.”3 Their recognition of fresh blood indicates that the company has considerable experience regarding mass death. This realization informed my understanding of the second part of the second sentence. I first thought it odd that the narrator refers to the mortaring as a simple “affair.”4 Their professional attitude is further revealed when the words “business,” and “jobs,” are used in the third sentence.5 I assumed that such horror would be described with more emotion. However, this scene is merely an “affair” to these soldiers. The group’s copious experience, implied by earlier parts of the passage, helped me to understand that the patrol has a very matter-of-fact reaction. They simply move along from their massacred comrades and fulfill their duty of reporting it to the stretcher-bearers.
After such an inexpressive tone set through the passage, the idea that the soldiers care about the stretcher-bearers’ jobs was a strange concept to me. The soldiers intend to report this matter as a mundane transaction of information, and it seems as if they are passively obeying protocol. The narrator maintains that it isn’t the patrol’s “business,” to interfere with the jobs of others.6 Instead of the reverent display that I expected, the narrator and his patrol are motivated to report the incident as a robotic performance of duty. Further analysis of the passage’s surrounding context and indifferent tone quickly resolved my confusion. Surrounded by blood-soaked earth, dispersed body parts, and a conversation about sustaining toughness, these soldiers truly aren’t concerned about their dead countrymen. Their time in battle has hardened them to a point of total apathy, and the passage develops to show how deep this apathy penetrates their consciousness.
The first part of the passage revealed to me that the soldiers are barely affected by gore and death. The narrator’s definitive statement regarding the timing of the event, and his dismissal of the mortaring as an “affair” indicated that the soldiers only acknowledge the massacre so that they don’t interfere with the jobs of others. As a result, a close interpretation of this passage has shown me that their accumulated experience has made them apathetic towards the lives of others, and their own lives as well. Remarque emphasizes this callous nature to expand upon one of the story’s broad themes. Events such as this mortar attack have permanently conditioned these soldiers against societal norms. Their shockingly passive reaction to gruesome death shows how intense exposure to war can fundamentally change people.
- Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A. W. Wheen. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956), 211.
Maria Remarque, Erich. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A. W. Wheen. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956.