Few images in world literature have the ability to burn themselves as indelibly on the psyche of the reader as the crater scene in Erich Maria Remarque’s, Im Westen nichts Neues (1929, Eng. All Quiet on the Western Front), where two combatants find themselves seeking shelter on a battlefield in the same bomb-shelled pit, – writes Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania in Church and Life.
The central character and the narrator for the greater part of the novel is Paul Bäumer, a nineteen year old German soldier fighting on the Western Front. Bäumer finds his innocence torn from him, by witnessing the horrors and savagery of war, and not only this, by the personal realization that steadily he is coming to eventually accept these horrors as common-place. So broken has Bäumer become that even the touch of fresh, clean, pressed, linen horrifies him. The nicety of his family home begins to shatter him to the core, when he is on leave for six weeks. Bäumer, who has had a genteel, happy family upbringing has in the course of the war seen a horse trying to escape the battle-field, tripping in its entrails; he has seen comrades and combatants, blown apart, pieces of flesh hanging from trees; he has watched friends die in make-shift hospitals in great agony – but he still retains some degree of innocence – for as yet he has never killed a man with his bare hands. Now lying in a crater Bäumer, tries to hide in the yellow liquid, only now and then braving to peer at whether his brothers-in-arms or the enemy are gaining ground. He is in no man’s land. It is nighttime and the pall of dark for the most part shadows him, but the explosion of gunfire fleetingly makes him visible. The enemy approaches – they attack the German line; they are repelled and sound retreat. Bäumer, skulks down. All of a sudden a nearby explosion is heard, and into Bäumer’s makeshift refuge dives a French soldier. Without hesitation Bäumer immediately drives his knife thrice into the chest of the French soldier; he then recoils to the other side of the crater. There Bäumer sits, and watches the Frenchman, gurgling. Bäumer looks in horror at the warm crimson blood on his hands, and tries to wipe the stain from both out of his mind and from his sight. Time passes, but the Frenchman still struggles between life and death; unable to cope with this scene, Bäumer opens up his first-aid kit and tries to tend the wounds; he takes his mug and gives the dying man a drink, and reassures him that he is now trying to assist, that he should not be frightened of him. The Frenchman takes hours to die – through morning, past noon. Bäumer wishes he had a gun. He can’t bring himself now in the light of day and reason, to push his knife once more into this man’s chest – and complete what he began. At three o’clock in the afternoon, nearly twelve hours after he had delivered the French soldier the fatal blow, the enemy breathes his last. Yet in death, the French soldier delivers his own coup-de-grâce. Caught up in regret and self-recrimination, Bäumer, promises that he will send the French soldier’s wife or loved ones a letter, then no, he thinks, he can’t do this – he has taken from these people a source of happiness never to be returned. He rifles through the pockets of the dead man. Looking at the personal effects, he comes to the realization that he has killed not a nameless enemy, but that he has killed Gerard Duval, a son, a husband, a father, a printer. He Bäumer, has killed a person, a man who had reasons to live – a man who had had a life – a history. Parents gave this man life, life that Bäumer, a man whom they have never seen, has taken from their son. They will hear of their son’s death, in the same way someone returns home to find their house emptied of its contents by a thief in the night.
babes who had been taught by loving parents how to walk, how to speak, how to pray; taught by governments how to kill, and left alone to glare at the hell around them – to eventually learn how to die.
A war that began over the death of one man in Sarajevo, had quickly developed into a family feud between the royal houses of Europe in which men and women in their millions lost their innocence, lost their hopes and dreams, lost their capacity to love, lost their lives, perhaps even their salvation. In order for Kings to fight Kaisers little people such as Bäumer and Duval had to learn how best to spill one another’s blood, how to turn one man’s smile into a contorted, writhing death mask. After the war had ended, some monarchies had crumbled and others who were equally to blame, became stronger. And there on the green fields of France, under blue skies and a blanket of poppies, lay the rotting remains of men such as Duval and Bäumer, babes who had been taught by loving parents how to walk, how to speak, how to pray; taught by governments how to kill, and left alone to glare at the hell around them – to eventually learn how to die.
So graphic is Remarque’s novel, so critical of war, that Joseph Goebbels in the interim between World War I and World War II declared the author of Im Westen nichts Neues, to be a traitor. Remarque’s sister was eventually to be executed by the NAZI’s, some say because of her own defiance against the regime, others, because her brother, now in the United States as an exile, was too far away to be ‘punished’.
The most hallowed treaties, mutually confirmed by the strongest sanctions, cannot stop the enraged parties from rushing on to mutual destruction, whenever passion or mistaken interest urges them to the irrational decision of the battle
The Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus time and time again issued words of advice to the monarchs and leaders of age, for arbitration to be enacted and attempted, before the thought of war became a frightful realization. According to Erasmus in The Complaint of Peace, one should take hold of the thought of peace, the beauty of peace – and holding on to this – prevent war from taking hold of you. For, as Erasmus qualifies: “By such and so many plain indications of her meaning has Nature taught mankind to seek peace, and ensure it. She invites them to it by various allurements, she draws them to it by gentle violence, she compels them to it by the strong arm of necessity. After all, then, what infernal being, all-powerful in mischief, bursting every bond of nature asunder, fills the human bosom with an insatiable rage for war? If familiarity with the sight had not first destroyed all surprise at it, and custom, soon afterwards, blunted the sense of its evil, who could be prevailed upon to believe that those wretched beings are possessed of rational souls, the intellects and feelings of human creatures, who contend, with all the rage of furies, in everlasting feuds, and litigations, ending in murder! Robbery, blood, butchery, desolation, confound, without distinction, every thing sacred and profane. The most hallowed treaties, mutually confirmed by the strongest sanctions, cannot stop the enraged parties from rushing on to mutual destruction, whenever passion or mistaken interest urges them to the irrational decision of the battle.”
History has shown replete instances of where the better halves of men and women have not won out, where the innards of ordinary people have been used to grease the mighty wheels of an empire.
History has shown replete instances of where the better halves of men and women have not won out, where the innards of ordinary people have been used to grease the mighty wheels of an empire. History has also shown tragic instances of when nations had no other choice but to take up armed resistance. St. Augustine of Hippo, even provided Catholic Theology with the notion and the criteria by which to recognize a just war, when to fight and when to surrender. Even some of the greatest heroes of the 20th Century, people such as: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 14th Dalai Lama, have not claimed for themselves the title of being ‘complete’ pacifists. With regard the latter, Pico Iyer, notes in his work entitled, The Open Road, that since the time of the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet, he has preached peaceful protests and non-violent means by which to negotiate with the Communist government in Beijing, in the hope of securing a free, democratic Tibet. However during the same period of time, Iyer writes: “the province in eastern Tibet where the current Dalai Lama was born, was turned into the largest gulag in the world, set up to accommodate as many as ten million prisoners. One in every five Tibetans – more than a million in all – died of starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese, according to Tibetan estimates. One in ten found himself in jail, while all but thirteen of the more than six thousand monasteries in Tibet were laid waste and centuries-old scriptures were incinerated. Parents were forced to applaud as their children were shot to death”.(Iyer, 2008, p. 48). As Iyer writes toward the conclusion of his work: “The Dalai Lama had been practicing nonviolence and moving the world with his example for almost half a century, the messages might have been saying; but he had moved China not at all, and Tibet now was almost gone”. (Ibid, p. 219). According to Iyer, what has become difficult for many Tibetans to accept, even though they dearly love the Dalai Lama, is that the Dalai Lama, does not reject violence as a means to an end altogether. In a 2004 interview with CBS journalist, Hana Gartner, when questioned about war and armed struggle the Dalai Lama responded: “I’m always against. However, and like Second World War and Korean War, at least to protect the rest of the democratic civilization, and Korea, South Korea protected. As a result, more prosperity and democracy, freedom, these things. So sometimes… But then I think the difficult thing is when violence is started, eventually there’s always a danger the situation become out of control, chain reaction, chain violence like Vietnam.” Evidently, the Dalai Lama, even though a Buddhist recognizes the validity of St. Augustine’s rationale, that if there is no real hope of victory by taking up arms, then one should not even threaten to draw a sword. There is also much wisdom in his final comment regarding a chain reaction that is difficult to stop; for the most recent Croat or Serb killed by the other party, is but a domino effect that can be traced through history, to the first Croat or Serb that was murdered by the other. The act of beginning a war is far easier than the act of ending a war; as it is as well a naïve historian who declares that World War I, ended on November the 11th, 1918, and not with the surrender of NAZI Germany in 1945. In the seeds of one war too often lies the harvest and subsequent germination of yet another.
According to Iyer, what has become difficult for many Tibetans to accept, even though they dearly love the Dalai Lama, is that the Dalai Lama, does not reject violence as a means to an end altogether.
In the life of government among men, there is no decision as vital in the truest sense of the word as the decision or not of going to war; a nation either sustains its freedom or loses it. Yet even when there is just cause to go into battle, even the holiest soldier is required to snuff the spark of life from out of the veins of another – that is the basic law of war, to bring your enemy to their knees. That the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. par. 2264, 2265) holds the vocation of a soldier as being honourable does not provide governments with a Divine Right to declare war; far from it. It is because we all have an aboriginal right to self-defence, that we should clearly recognize war as being a final option. Both Duval and Bäumer had a ‘right’ to tear the throat from out of the other – for they were threatened by a man with the same ‘right’ to do as much to them. A Cornell University paper for the Peace Studies Programme, entitled, Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century, indicated that in the entire 20th Century, 237.5 million people died as a direct result of armed conflict; approximately ten times the total population of Australia at the dawn of the 21st Century.(Leitenberg, 2006, p. 14). With six billion human beings on such a small planet – the universal empowering and taking up of this ‘right’ of self-defence, can only end in the extinction of humanity. Thus only after exhausting every possible option available should the lid to Pandora’s Box be lifted – and lifted in the understanding that no government owns any magic wand, as in Goethe’s fabled Sorcerer’s Apprentice by which to bring all things together peacefully, after unleashing on each other a symphony of well-orchestrated violence. Moreover, in a world of mass media, we as citizens must not fall victim to a propaganda machine that provides us with piecemeal information, by which to stir up within our breasts an image of an enemy that is fantasy, a modernized image of the Hun eating babies – for war is about real people killing, dying and being maimed, and we cannot afford giving up the real life we have, for an illusion of king and country, of power and money, or any other phantasm, that cannot be grasped in the pure light of there being a perfect God of love.
we all have an aboriginal right to self-defence, that we should clearly recognize war as being a final option.
Perhaps Jacques Maritain spoke best of the confusion modern man and modern woman find themselves in; tormented by the media and propaganda machines, knowing not which way to turn, and what to declare as just defense or not, when he commented at length in Man and the State (1998, pp. 215 – 216), as to the necessity of the individual to make choices in a world of grey. As Maritain concluded: “Some of such problems are even of a nature to put their consciences on the rack – I am thinking especially of the problem of just war. People know that participating in an unjust war is sharing in homicide. They are told, on the other hand, that things have become so obscure and entangled that they lack competence to bear judgement on each particular case: am I bound, then, to share in what is perhaps a crime, because my government is a better judge than I am on the matter, even if I were a German at the time of the Hitlerian war? On the opposite side, systematic conscientious objection is a tragic illusion, no less harmful to justice than blind obedience. The old standards with respect to which a war was to be considered just or unjust are outworn, and nevertheless the fact of giving up the distinction between the just and the unjust, in the case of war as in any other case, would boil down to a simple abdication of moral reason. It would be good if, in given and especially serious international conjunctures, a senate of wise men were to tell people where, in their opinion, the road to justice was”.
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, November 2017