Winston Churchill always said, “You ask: what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, no matter how long and hard the world may be; for without victory, there is no survival. ” In Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, victory is seen as the only option. The soldiers in the novel do whatever it takes like acting before thinking or ignoring any possible consequences in order to emerge victorious.
Paul and his comrades are exposed constantly to violence, jumpstarting a dehumanizing process that forces them to rely on animal instinct.
This necessary instinct is the only thing that keeps them alive during war, but it also changes them internally leaving them with a different mindset. To survive the war, soldiers have to sacrifice any logical instinct or emotion and fight on animal instinct. They start out level-minded, but when they reach the front all that changes, as Paul believes when he says, “We march up, moody or good tempered soldiers – we reach the zone where the front begins and become on instinct human animals” (56).
This animal instinct is necessary for their survival.
When they are put in a situation concerning warfare, their mind adapts to the environment and begins to think of the enemy as targets, rather than human beings. It is simply a defensive mechanic that allows them to save themselves without the feeling of guilt. Paul’s opinion is that, “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation…No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves; to save ourselves and be revenged” (113). They are so preoccupied with fighting and staying alive, that their emotions completely disappear.
This is proven by Paul’s thoughts: “If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him” (114). Ultimately, if they did not dehumanize themselves they would not be able to kill anyone over the enemy line. A good example of this is when Paul is frozen after looking into the enemy’s eyes during the first bombardment, but he quickly gets over this to move on and save himself. T. S. Matthews in his article “Bad News” states, “They have had to become soldiers, and they are nothing else.
They believe in the present moment; it is not enough, but it is all they can be sure of” (2). Matthews goes on to say, “But what keeps them going in man’s machine-made hell is the bodily presence of the friends around them” (2). On the contrary, dehumanization is the key to survival. Throughout the novel, Paul loses close friends of his and each time he does he finds the strength to keep on fighting. He may not always want to, but he keeps moving forward in his dehumanized state towards the end. Dehumanization not only affects the soldier physically but internally as well, both on and off the front.
Being affected internally by dehumanization means that these soldiers are stripped of their emotions, have a changed their point of view on war, or are given a different mindset. When Paul and others go to visit Kemmerich, a former classmate whose leg was recently amputated, they can tell he is on the brink of death. Instead of being concerned, Paul’s classmate Muller is insensitive and is only concerned about his boots. Muller has been so dehumanized that all he can bring himself to think about is Kemmerich’s boots, and receiving them after his death.
Later in the novel, Kat points out a sniper to Paul, who is killing off soldiers. As Kat mentions, this sniper feels no remorse or guilt about it his actions. He has been so dehumanized that he has come to enjoy killing others. Dehumanization causes the soldiers to think differently when it comes to death. They see so many people dead all the time that they begin to care less and less. Paul thinks, “When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual” (181). Internally, the soldiers are losing many things close to them because of being on the front.
These things are written by Matthews, “Love they have not known, patriotism and all the other abstract virtues and vices have vanished away in their first drum-fire” (2). Due to being on the front, the soldiers find difficulty in some of the simplest things in life and losing other things they have already been taught. About this Matthews comments, “These youngsters whom the War is swiftly making unfit for civilian life (though many of them will not have to make the change) have cast aside, of necessity, all that they have been taught” (2).
This dehumanization changes the soldiers, leaving with them with the consequences and wondering if the life of an animal is really worth living. When Paul returns home on leave, he is struck with the feeling of homelessness. He can take no comfort there, and begins to realize that this is not because his home changed, but himself instead. When Paul tries on ordinary civilian clothes, he feels awkward and doesn’t recognize himself. He also finds it hard to get along with people who constantly want to know about the war, like his own father. Even though Paul is near his family and acquaintances, he still feels isolated.
He is so accustomed to being on the front with his comrades that he begins to think of that as the closest thing to home. Even after the war, the soldiers would return home feeling homeless and disconnected from society. John Wilson, the author of Combat and Comradeship, says, “A contrary outcome, ‘the residual stress perspective’ (Figley, 1978) suggests that the psychosocial aftermath of war continues or even intensifies through the post war years” (136). The men on the front are only concerned with life and death. When their life is at risk, their thought process changes from when they were safe.
Their thoughts never remain the same, and the changes of their thoughts affect how they live their life. This is proven when Paul says, “Our thoughts are clay, they are molded with the changes of the days; when we are resting they are good; under fire, they are dead. Fields of craters within and without” (271). Because of all the war and violence that Paul and his comrades have suffered through, they have gone through a dehumanizing process. This process does in fact save them from war, but changes them into a completely different person.
Living life dehumanized, in the end, is not worth it. They feel disconnected from home, lose all emotions and some even begin to think of death as the only option. By the end of the novel, Paul simply describes the life of a dehumanized soldier as, “Shells, gas clouds, and flotillas of tanks – shattering, corroding, death. Dysentery, influenza, typhus – scalding, choking, death. Trenches, hospitals, the common grave – there are no other possibilities” (283). Taking all these things into consideration, it is perfectly understandable why a soldier would not want this kind of life.