Let Us Not Be Quiet

Revisiting Remarque before peace eludes

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a tattered thing. The cover, already coming apart in brittle pieces, fell off entirely as I read. It was appropriate to the fate of narrator Paul Baumer to see that cover come away.

It is the father of all modern war writing (though it disdains fathers).

It gives us the Lost Generation in its rawest form. It came out about the same time as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Remarque seems to have tapped the same narrative vein as Hemingway. Is it the standard voice of those who witnessed firsthand the horrors of WWI; or is it the standard voice of all warrior-writers? Mailer, Heller, Tim O’Brien, Kevin Powers write with the same wry tension when they write of the Second World War, Vietnam, the most recent war in Iraq.

Heller is far windier than the others, so it surprises me to think that so much of Catch-22‘s invective can be found in Remarque. It is invective born of rage at the military as an institution, at institutional blindness writ-large.

Remarque’s first big battle comes in Chapter 4. The next big battle—bigger than the first—is recounted in Chapter 6. In between, the reader is introduced to Corporal Himmelstoss, the squad’s chief tormenter, and it’s no mistake the chapter opens with the difficulty of crushing lice. Killing each separate louse is a tedious business when a man has hundreds. The little beasts are hard and the everlasting cracking with one’s fingernails very soon becomes wearisome.

Thereafter Himmelstoss, chief military louse, makes his appearance. He taunts the squad about responding to his authority. But Himmelstoss is a man from camp and his authority is viewed as vapid. “Stand up there, bring your heels together when your superior officer speaks to you,” Himmelstoss orders Tjaden. The soldier waves him off. “You take a run and jump at yourself, Himmelstoss.” Himmelstoss is a raging book of army regulations. The Kaiser couldn’t be more insulted.

The only peace that comes of this exchange is that the command comes down light on Tjaden and gives him open arrest. Baumer and Kat sneak off, pillage a goose, and bring him the roasted meat. Himmelstoss is soon crushed like a louse, shown for the coward he is during the great battle that rages next.

Remarque aims his barbs at the military’s institutional rigidity and ignorance time and again. On home leave Baumer fails to salute an old major and is forced to practice the protocol. It enrages him. What does the major know of sacrifice? The military hands out new uniforms in time for the Kaiser’s inspection—then collects them again when its over. The military sends fresh recruits with no training, and two companies are mown down by a single airman. What do they know of cover?

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is in tatters. It is well read. It is a well-read copy with lines like these underlined: There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly… They ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future… While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.

As I read All Quiet on the Western Front these past two days Remarque’s strong prose consumed me entirely. The story is timeless. So many have read this book, yet still our current leadership would tear down the very institutions dedicated to preventing similar stories from being re-lived—the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps—to build up a store of arms and creative means for killing our fellow man.

How has a book so well-read managed to be so poorly taken into account?

Coming Very Soon

The Second World War II had Catch 22. The Global War on Terror will have:

2Pumps

Brian Williams, Dan Marino & Milli Vanilli

A lot of excuses have been made on behalf of Brian Williams since his fabrications went public last week. None of them are good. None of them can buy back the credibility every journalist requires as their professional stock in trade. But I was surprised to find one of the worst excuses in The New Yorker on Sunday, a piece titled Brian Williams and the God Complex.

AP Photo/NBC/Dwaine Scott
AP Photo/NBC/Dwaine Scott

I take exception to more than one point Ken Auletta makes along the way, but here’s his worst:

While the spotlight is on Williams’ transgressions, a word about the complicity of NBC and the other networks’ marketing machines. The networks have a stake in promoting their anchors as God-like figures… On his helicopter in Iraq, Williams was accompanied by an NBC crew. Did they not speak up to correct the record for fear of undermining the powerful anchor?

First, nobody is to blame for Williams’ transgressions other than Williams himself. He made these falsified claims on numerous occasions over several years, statements made with bloated self-importance and the intent to convince a viewership of his heartiness and bravery. But now we find in him the opposite: cowardice… he remains afraid of the truth. His performance last Wednesday, far from heartfelt apology, was just more spin, insincerity, and excuse making.

Second, in what hierarchical structure does “the crew” have latitude to “correct the record”? Does Auletta suggest that a cameraman should come forward publicly on his own, putting his livelihood in jeopardy? Another crew—the military crew flying Williams’ Chinook—had already been howling publicly for years about the falsehoods, to no avail. It might be fair to ask if a crewmember approached the NBC brass about the issue, but we’ve already learned from Auletta’s own argument that the network would have no interest in such claims. After all, he says, they have a stake in Williams’ God-like status.

Another excuse Auletta offers is that “The anchor is treated as the citizen’s trusted guide to the news. As a result, they can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God. It’s a short distance from there to telling fantastic stories—and maybe actually believing them.”

Maybe this pop psychology is true. But believing one’s own lies through repetition does not excuse mendacity. And in the case of an anchor—a journalist—it flies in the face of a core professional value. Rather than excuse Williams, this line of reasoning should serve to shame him further. A “trusted guide” is a position of humility, not omnipotence. It is a position of responsibility, not power.

None of this should have surprised me given the thin gruel with which the article began. At the outset Auletta compares Williams’ situation with that of former Miami Dolphins Quarterback Dan Marino: “I’m reminded of Marino because he just appeared on my TV screen as a pitchman for Nutrisystem”. So, this piece is driven by whimsy? By the chance appearance on TV of a disgraced celebrity? There is barely the thinnest of connections between an NFL star’s off-field philandering, and subsequent cover-up, and a trusted journalist’s blatant, repeated disregard for his professional code of ethics while on the job.

No, Williams’ case is less like Dan Marino’s, and more like that of Milli Vanilli, the 80’s pop stars who hopped around in black tights while pretending to sing, “Girl you know it’s true…” All performance, all show, all sizzle and no bacon. And now, we know, it just isn’t true.

MV

Review–The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes

In time for Veteran’s Day (also Armistice Day), Atticus Review posted my latest look at today’s literature with David S. Atkinson‘s The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes.

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What better way to suggest the futility of the human experience than with a card game called Armistice? This game is not War, it is Armistice. Because, as the narrator ofThe Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes by David S. Atkinson explains, “Battles have costs. Even the winner of a battle is a loser in some way, at least most of the time.” Armistice, like life, is a game that proves there is no winning. Not even in victory.

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