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Paul and his comrades navigate a landscape of death and destruction, wrought by the terrible weapons of World War I. Remarque spares few details in describing the physical effects of war on those who are so unfortunate as to find themselves fighting in it. This point is first driven home by their encounter with Kemmerich, described by Paul as a a gifted athlete who could do "the giant's turn on the parallel bar" before the war. When the men go to visit their old friend, who has been grievously wounded, in the field hospital, Paul sees that the boy is a shadow of his former self:
His lips have fallen away, his mouth has become larger, his teeth stick out and look as though they were made of chalk. The flesh melts, the forehead bulges more prominently, the cheekbones protrude. The skeleton is working itself through. The eyes are already sunken in.
Kemmerich dies an agonizing death, alongside dozens of other young men who are also dying. A young life has been destroyed by war. Elsewhere, Paul describes bodies blown to pieces by shell fragments, agonizing death by gas, screaming horses mortally wounded by artillery shrapnel, and days of "howling torture" that awaited seriously wounded soldiers, often little more than boys.
Yet All Quiet on the Western Front is also preoccupied with the mental and spiritual destruction wrought by the war on those who fought it. Paul repeatedly observes that the war has created a gulf between him and his former self, one which is widened every time he returns home. By the end of the book, he is convinced that the war has annihilated an entire generation of young men, including (perhaps especially) those who survived. Lying in a hospital bed recuperating from a serious wound, he reflects:
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...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...Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?
The destruction of war goes well beyond the physical for Remarque.
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