There is an anecdote I like. I have no idea if it is true.
Stanley Kubrick famously never wanted to make more than one movie in the genre. So when he got around to floating the idea for Full Metal Jacket, a friend called him up and said “But you’ve already made a war movie. You made Paths of Glory.” To which Kubrick replied. “No, Paths of Glory was an anti-war movie. Now I want to make a war movie.”
It is a distinction worth remembering, though I really did have to watch Full Metal Jacket a few times before I got it. But I was reminded of the quote all throughout reading this book. What was All quiet on the Western Front? Is it a war story, or an anti-war story.
Maybe the question is ridiculous.
All quiet on the Western Front is a novel of the first world war. For many people, it is the novel of the first world war. The story focuses on Paul Bäumer, a German soldier. We learn a lot about his life throughout the course of the novel, from his ailing mother to the teacher who convinced him to go fight to begin with. There are also a significant number of moments of him and his fellow soldiers in the trenches, and the mundane and extraordinary events that occurred there in.
But here is the thing. If this is a war novel, there wasn’t all that much war in it. The largest section of the novel is the middle part where all the men are home from the front. For me at least, this was perhaps the most interesting part of the story, where we see to what extent the soldiers, or Paul specifically, condemn those people who sent him to the war and are unable to really understand the experience of it all. Paul, much like the book itself, seems hesitant to engage with all the various opinions he encounters as he is on leave from the front.
But the war is present. All the shelling and sniping are there, and while there is a mundane horror to these, it is the other incidents that really give a human face to it all. One scene in particular, where all the soldiers find themselves stricken with the same diarrhetic food poisoning, seems to hammer the point home that war is more than the playing of heroism.
The Kurbick quote I began with does not set up a dichotomy. It implies a trichotomy. There are anti-war books, there are pro-war books, and then there are war books. Just as it is hard to watch Full Metal Jacket and not want to see condemnation of acclaim for its subject manner, it is just as difficult to commit this with All Quiet on the Western Front. It is, at best, merely a snapshot of the experience.
And what a snapshot it is.