Friday, April 7, 2017

Soldiers don’t start Wars – Politicians start Wars : Book Review – All Quiet on the Western Front

Soldiers don’t start wars.

Politicians start wars.

But – Politicians don’t die in wars.

It is the Soldiers who die in wars. 

And – on many occasions – after soldiers from both sides have massacred each other – the wily politicians negotiate with each other – and make deals to stop the wars they have started – treaties, armistice, truce, cease-fire – rendering the sacrfice of the soldiers futile. 

Even if a war is won – it is the politicians who take credit for victory - relegating the soldiers to the background. 

To put it in a nutshell – politicians use soldiers as cannon-fodder to suit their needs. 

This is the gist of the classic war novel ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – the most authentic war novel that I have read. 

Dear Reader: 

Here is my updated Book Review of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque which I first wrote a few years ago. 

Book Review

NB: In my book review below, the generic term “soldier” encompasses all uniformed personnel of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy and Air Force)


I have observed that most civilian citizens – including the “powers-that-be” – do not understand the psyche of a soldier. 

If you watch TV News – you will see that there are wars and conflicts going on in various parts of the world. 

Almost every day – we see news of soldiers being martyred while fighting terrorists or on the Line of Control (LOC) with our hostile neighbour.

But – the common man remains indifferent to this news since it does not affect him – and some insensitive politicians go to the extent of making outrageous remarks like “soldiers are paid to die”.

We see the tragic sight of military veterans on hunger strike for OROP (One Rank One Pension) and seeking parity in in CPC pay and perks with civilian employees and correction of anomalies. 

We dismiss the OROP imbroglio as “any other issue” – thinking that veterans protesting and agitating is similar to industrial workers, civilian employees or students going on strike – which happens quite frequently. 

Recently  we saw Soldiers taking recourse to Social Media to project their grievances. 

Many grievances of the Military and Veterans like Pay Commission Anomalies remain unresolved for many years.

In 2015 – we saw Jingoistic Politicians “celebrate” the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 War – while Military Veterans who actually fought in the 1965 War are ignored.

We confuse Jingoism with Patriotism.

I have seen that many people feel that jingoism means patriotism – whereas – in actual fact – there is a big difference between jingoism and patriotism.

Most civilians have a fancy image of the Armed Forces – because they see the “pomp and show” of smartly dressed soldiers marching during the Republic Day Parade and other ceremonial occasions – or they observe the elegant social life of military officers in peacetime cantonments.

But very few civilians know about the harrowing time experienced a soldier in the field – where he is subjected to extreme physical strain and mental stress – not only in war, border skirmishes and counter-insurgency combat operations – but even in “peacetime” – when he is deployed on hazardous “aid to civil power” duties for maintaining law and order or in dangerous disaster rescue and relief or on “internal security” duties in anti-militancy/anti-terrorism and Counter-Insurgency (CI) operations.

There is a stark contrast between “peacetime soldiering” in exquisite military cantonments and the harsh life in the field (and at sea on warships) – and – sadly – only the former is visible to civilian citizens.

For a civilian citizen – it is difficult to grasp the psychology of the average combat soldier – who lives in an environment of dread and fear – and survives each moment with death tagging him at the elbow.

Over time – the soldier becomes reproachful of those who enjoy safety and security – sitting in peaceful comfort – far away from danger – be they politicians, bureaucrats, civilian citizens, or even his own senior officers or the non-combatant “tail” of the Army.

And – this feeling of antipathy further alienates the soldier from civil society – and increases the chasm between the military and the civil society.

In order to bridge this gulf – it is necessary to apprise the common man about the life of a soldier.

Sadly – we have failed to do this.

Our Mainstream Media tends to hype and dramatize military news/issues for TRPs.

Though Hollywood has produced some realistic War Movies – in India – most Bollywood War Films are jingoistic and overly dramatic in nature.

Curiously – even the Armed Forces indulge in hype and propaganda whenever their PR machinery puts out reports in the media.

Even in their recruitment advertisements – the defence services project the “goody goody” part of “peacetime soldiering” – while downplaying the realistic aspects of military life.

If you peruse literature – to see whether there are any literary works which discern between hype and truth – you will realize that most war novels tend to romanticize war – accentuating jingoistic and romantically appealing concepts such as glory, honour, patriotism, sacrifice, adventure, heroism etc - which are far removed from reality.

When I asked myself whether there were any authentic military novels which realistically depict the “psyche of the soldier” – I remembered that indeed I had at least one such book on my bookshelves.

So – I delved into my bookcase and pulled out my ancient dog-eared copy of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – which is the most authentic war novel I have ever read.

As is the case with most of my books – I picked up this book long ago from the pavement bookstalls located on the footpath opposite the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) near Hutatma Chowk (Flora Fountain) in Mumbai.

Whenever I buy a book – I always write the date and place – and I see that I have bought this book 39 years ago in 1978.

So – Dear Reader – let me tell you a bit about this classic war novel which authentically describes the horrors of war and portrays the psyche of a soldier in a most realistic manner.



Title: All Quiet on the Western Front
Published: 1958 (Fawcett Crest) Paperback 175 Pages
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
ISBN: 44901634095
Edition language: English (Translated from German)

The above details pertain to the copy of the book I have with me.

For details of various editions of “All Quiet on the Western Front” – just “Google” the title – or click the url link: 

Also – if you do a google search – you will see that this book is freely available online on the internet.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – An Authentic Military Novel

There are very few authentic military novels.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is the most authentic war novel that I have read.

The author Erich Maria Remarque was a German War Veteran and this novel is based on his first hand combat experiences during World War I.

Writing with stark authenticity, Erich Maria Remarque realistically depicts the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a simple soldier – the violence, brutality, fear and terror soldiers experience at every moment – and the novel vividly brings out the effect of combat on the psyche of a soldier.

A novel tells a story.

But – storytelling alone can never produce a great novel – a classic.

What makes a novel a classic is whether the novel has a message – a “moral of the story” – and how effectively the author succeeds in conveying this message to the reader – so that the “moral of the story” has a lasting impact on the reader.

As elaborated by EM Forster in his book “Aspects of a Novel” – the sine qua non of a good novel is that the story must not only move in time – but it must also impart “value” to the reader – and this “value” is encapsulated in the “moral of the story”.

Erich Maria Remarque achieves this brilliantly – writing in present tense to move the story in time – and using flashbacks to effectively convey the “moral of the story”.

The novel emphasizes that soldiers are normal human beings like everyone else.

Soldiers have feelings like you and me.

Soldiers have families, children, relatives, friends – and love them.

Soldiers are sensitive individuals – not emotionless zombies.

The narrator – a young man only 19 years of age – joins the German Army and fights on the French Front in World War I (the “Western Front”).

The narrator speaks to you in the first person – and gives you his “worm’s eye view” of his war experience.

From time to time – by way of flashbacks – the narrator takes you into his “mind’s eye” – as he reflects on his own views, feelings and emotions on warfighting.

And right at the end of the story – while delivering his coup de grace – Erich Maria Remarque suddenly switches to ‘third person past tense’ – and you remain numbed by the epiphany.

As you read the story – you realize the narrator’s growing awareness of the emptiness of such concepts as patriotism, glory and honour when faced with the reality of war.

When they start fighting on the frontline – the young newly inducted soldiers perceive the huge dissonance between peacetime hype and wartime reality.


The essence of the book can be encapsulated in the comment – “… the front-line isn’t a parade-ground…” – expressed in ruminations of the narrator in Chapter 5 of the book.

I too realized the significance of this military truism (“… the front-line isn’t a parade-ground…”) – more than 37 years ago – during my nascent days in the Navy – when I joined a front-line warship after completing my training.

Here – on the warship – the focus was on operational excellence and professionalism – in stark contrast to the emphasis on parades, drill and “spit and polish” during our naval training in “stone frigates”.

The story in “All Quiet on the Western Front” begins when – immediately on completion of their basic military training – the narrator and his friends are sent to the front-line to fight on the battlefield.

Fighting on the frontline – the raw soldiers realize the military truth – that – in the ‘fog of war’ – the harsh reality is that – “the front-line isn’t a parade-ground” – and that all that parade drill and ‘spit and polish’ they had endured during training was futile – and is of no use in brutal warfighting on the frontline.

Subjected to the horrors of war – the narrator and his fellow soldiers realize the “absurdities of saluting and parade” – and – in a rare expression of dark humor – one of his comrades in uniform sarcastically comments:

“You take it from me – we are losing the war because we can salute too well...”

As they fight a brutal battle on the front-line – the soldiers realize the huge difference between “peacetime soldiering” and actual warfighting.

In peacetime – the Army is a reliable, decent job.

However – peacetime rules and hierarchy lose their relevance in the fog of war and amidst the chaos on the battlefield.

In wartime – rules and hierarchy are pretty useless and silly – especially in the merciless cruel atmosphere of ruthless ferocious conflict.

On the battlefront – it is straight and simple – “kill – or be killed...”

As the narrative progresses – we see the protagonist’s growing awareness of the emptiness of such jingoistic concepts as patriotism and honour when faced with the reality of war.

He realizes that most civilians seem to know nothing about military life.

War may be an adventure to a jingoist sitting comfortably at home – but it is a terrible experience for the combat soldier who is actually confronted with the possibility of being blown to pieces at any moment.

As he engages in brutal merciless infantry combat – attacks and counterattacks – bombings and artillery barrages – seeing dead and wounded comrades around him every day – he is overcome by fear and a sense of fatalism – and he becomes obsessed with survival.

I am sure most soldiers have experienced similar emotions.

No soldier wants to die – or worse – get injured and become disabled for life.

A soldier just wants to complete his “tour of combat duty” – and return home in one piece – safe and sound.

Forget about full scale war – this is true even in so-called “peacetime” deployments in the field, especially on turbulent borders and in counterinsurgency operations.

I remember that whenever we were deployed – all that the crew wanted was to return safe and sound and waited eagerly for our warship to return to our base port.


A soldier does not like war – because it the soldier who suffers most in war.

Soldiers don’t start wars.

It is the politicians who start wars.

But – politicians don’t die in the war – it is the soldiers who die in the war.

And later – when the war has been won – it is the jingoists who celebrate war-victories – and most of these jingoists are civilians who probably have never seen a shot fired in anger.

Earlier – in the days of monarchy – the King would lead his Army on the battlefield.

The King would lead his soldiers from the front – he would lead by personal example – fighting on the battlefield.

Sometimes – the King would be killed on the battlefield.

If he lost the war – the King would be imprisoned – and most likely – he would be executed or tortured to death by the victor.

Nowadays – in modern democracies – politicians rule nations.

But – politicians do not lead soldiers on the battlefield.

In fact – politicians have nothing to do with the fighting – they remain safe and sound – securely ensconced in peaceful comfort – far away from danger – while they exhort soldiers to sacrifice their lives for the nation.

And – when the soldiers win the war – the politicians emerge from their safe cocoons – to “celebrate” and take credit for the war victory.

The inherent message in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is that whether the war is won or lost – it is the soldier who is affected by the war.

In fact – all soldiers are affected by the war.

Some soldiers die on the battlefield.

Among those who survive – there are no “unwounded” soldiers.

Some soldiers are injured and get physically disabled – but all soldiers who go through a brutal war are mentally scarred for life.

The author wants to convey that war destroys men – it can kill them – it can cripple them – it can leave them mentally traumatized for life – and even if they survive in one piece – it leaves them changed for life.

While the book focuses on the extreme physical and mental stress faced by soldiers during the war – it also delves on the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the battlefront.

Depicting the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life after having experienced extreme combat situations – Erich Maria Remarque says: 

“ – even though they may have escaped its shells  (they) were destroyed by the war…”


If you have noticed – while I have delved on the theme – I have not divulged the story of “All Quiet on the Western Front” – because I want you to enjoy the book fully when you read it.

Of course – in subsequent blog posts – I am going to discuss some salient excerpts from this book – and try and relate then to present times.

I recommend you read this classic war novel – in fact – I would say that this is a “must read” book – especially if you are thinking of joining the Army or the Armed Forces.

Of course – if you are already in the Army – you must have already read this book as a part of “essential reading” during your cadet training days – and – I am sure this review will motivate you to read “All Quiet on the Western Front” once again.

Do read “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

As I said earlier – you can easily get the book – in print – or digital version – and it is freely available on internet too.

Written in German language  Im Westen nichts Neues was first published in serial form in the German Newspaper Vossische Zeitung from November 10 to December 9, 1928. 

It was published in book form the following year (1929) and became a big success.

The 1929 English translation of this book by Arthur Wesley Wheen had the title: “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

The literal translation of “Im Westen nichts Neues” is “In the West Nothing New” with "West" being the Western Front and the phrase referring to the content of an official communique at the end of the novel.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” earned Remarque international popularity and by the time of his death in 1970, perhaps fifty million copies of the novel had been sold and it had been translated into fifty-five languages. 

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is still widely regarded by many readers and critics as the greatest war novel of the twentieth century. 

I love reading military literature – especially war fiction – and I have read many war novels – but “All Quiet on the Western Front” is my all time favourite.

The writing style is unique – owing to its stark authenticity – and this book has left a lasting impression on me.

I am glad I read this superb novel – and – I am sure that you will find reading this engrossing book a fulfilling and enriching experience.

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