Greatest war novel ever - By Omar Kureishi Back   Home  
My father belonged to the Indian Medical Service (I.M.S.) and being an army doctor, as a family, we were always on the move. Moving with us was the family library and I remember one book in particular that never got left behind. It always seemed to be on the shelves. It was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.

I cannot say whether any member of the family had actually read it for I cannot remember any 'team discussion' on it. I imagined the book to be a war novel of all time, that one of the first acts of Hitler, on coming to power, was to ban it and the author had been advised to flee Germany before Hitler's goons got their claws on him. I decided to get a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front and when I did, I found I could not put it down and read it in one go. The book goes beyond the savagery of war, though there are dead bodies, dying soldier, cries of pain on every blood stained page, it is the most damnable indictment of war.

The war is World War 1, the Great War and its Armistice Day is still observed through a Poppy Day. Millions died, the less fortunate were left blind or limbless, broken in body and spirit. All Quiet on the Western Front is about this, not a novel but a documentary. The French newspaper Le Monde, reviewing the book wrote that it should be distributed in the millions and read in every school.

Which is why I am writing this column about this book, to show the obscenity of war, its wastefulness both human and material, As one surveys the world, one sees "ignorant armies" clashing by night, we see conflict and strife, armies massed on the borders of India and Pakistan, the coalition partners engaged in Afghanistan, Israeli and Palestinian men, killing eachother, local conflicts in every part of the world, a world spinning out of control in which law and order has broken down on a global scale.

All Quiet on the Western Front is the testimony of Paul Baumer who enlists with his classmates in the German army in World War 1. "I am young. I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me.

"What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; - it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?"

These are the tough questions the author asks through his twenty year old spokesman. This is as relevant today as it was in 1928 when the book was written. Sadly, what followed was Hitler and World War II and more slaughter of young lives. And because humankind had made giant strides in technology, there was the bonus of atom bombs: just one big bang and a mushroom cloud and an entire city could be turned to rubble and those living there either killed, or in the words of Graham Greene, become lepers who had lost their bells and were moving around, meaning no harm.

So unrelenting is the description of the horror of that war, page after page, that one looks for some relief. Some touches of humour and the closest one comes is in a conversation that Paul Baumer has with his comrades: "Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena, the ministers and generals of the two countries dressed in bathing drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting."

This would be a logical follow-up to what Oscar Wilde said: "Those who call a spade a spade, should be made to use one." Those who are in the forefront of advocating war should be the first ones who should be kitted up, handed an AK-47 and sent to the front. Along with them should be those who make great fortunes out of war.

All Quiet on the Western Front is as relevant today as it was when it was first written over 70 years ago. It tells the truth about war. There are no heroes, only victims.

Erich Maria Remarque himself took part in combat during World War 1, and was wounded five times, the last time very severely. He wrote other books and these too were about the worst horrors of the age, about war and inhumanity, but none of them had the same explosive power. Adolf Hitler banned the book but I don't think he read it.

I would strongly suggest that all those who are thinking of taking their country to war should be made to read the book. If they still wish to wage war they should be made to lead the charge. Or better still, the first to have their homes bombed.
Modified version of an article published in Pakistan daily Dawn.