In an age of digital and audiobooks, some books are still worthy of holding in your hands. These books are worth taking the time to underline your favorite passages. They are worth your tears. They are worth sharing with others. These are the books that find a way to change your perspective on life or even change your life altogether. That’s a lot for a book to live up to but I’ve been fortunate to read a few. I had the pleasure of adding another such book to my life changers list recently.
When I picked up a copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front, I didn’t expect for it to become such a meaningful story for me. I thought a novel about WWI would be an interesting change of pace. As an added bonus, it wasn’t expensive because it’s a classic in paperback. Woohoo! The front cover touts it as “The greatest war novel of all time.” That seemed lofty to me but I figured if it was still selling after this long then maybe there was a grain of truth to it. I get it now.
The beauty of All Quiet on The Western Front is that, despite the novel’s age, it’s insight into the life of a soldier in combat is still relevant. It’s original copyright is listed as 1928 and it was written by a German veteran of the First World War. Wars are no longer fought in trenches. Tanks aren’t new anymore. Warfare looks dramatically different now. Yet the feelings that Remarque describes in the novel are often echoed by modern combat veterans.
It is important here to distinguish them as combat veterans. Veterans who have participated in battles firsthand. Some of Remarque’s commentary about military life will likely ring true for most veterans. That being said, for me, the most impactful writing about his experience in combat. As my husband and many other combat veterans like to say, “war is hell but actual combat is a motherfucker.” It impacts people in ways that are hard for those who have not been there to comprehend.
Throughout our relationship and before, my Husband has struggled with PTSD. We’re fortunate that he doesn’t have many of the symptoms of PTSD that people think of when they hear the diagnosis. He’s not violent. He doesn’t often have nightmares or flashbacks. He, like many other combat veterans, mostly deals with insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Many veterans find it difficult to explain their feelings and often feel alone or ashamed of their journey. We’ve been blessed that he found friends who have overcome their past trauma that are here to support him and that he had the courage to seek out professional help.
As we’ve grown together I’ve done my best to learn how to support him in his journey. It’s still not easy for him to talk about or explain though. I’m a feelings person and a words person to boot. I find relief in self expression through verbal discourse or writing. The Hubs doesn’t. This makes it harder for me to understand his journey because when he’s having his worst days he has zero desire to talk about it. I say often that I can’t help if I don’t know what’s going on. I’ll admit that sometimes it even makes it hard for me to be sympathetic or helpful when he’s having a rough day.
So where does All Quiet on the Western Front fit in? For us, it opened the door to deeper understanding and communication. I stopped reading time and time again to share sentence, a passage, or to recount the events of an entire chapter. Each time he confirmed that his feelings around his life both before and after combat were much the same as those expressed in the book. The more I read the more I understood about my Husband. The more I understood about the damage that combat can do to the most mundane and seemingly ordinary things. A few times I put the book down because it hurt to think that the man I love struggles with these same thoughts and emotions.
There is an ever present theme in the book about not being able to fit back into a world that was once yours. So many veterans struggle with this same experience. Your life is chugging along like normal and then you go to war and when you return to normal life it’s no longer your normal and you struggle to adjust. The things that once excited you or made you happy seem distant and foreign. You’ve become so conditioned to a constant state of alertness even in down time that although you have departed from the war, it’s left you with the parting gift of this alertness that refuses to leave. Some veterans can’t ever readjust and unfortunately war kills them long after the shots no longer ring out.
Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It is a time to reflect on those who have lost their lives in battle. I always think of the men that fought alongside my Husband and all of my other Veteran family and friends. Having read All Quiet on the Western Front, this year the day seems even more impactful. I encourage anyone who has a loved one who struggles with battle induced PTSD to take some time to read this novel. It’s not an easy read. Sometimes reading it was so hard as I saw the parallels between my Husband’s life and the novel’s character. It was worth it though. I’ll share with you with one of my favorite lines from the novel:
“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”