From Chapter 2 in All Quiet on the Western Front, why does Paul refer to his generation as a "waste land"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Paul articulates the condition of young men sent to the front in World War I. Paul sees his generation, a young one, as comprising the vast majority of soldiers sent towards military action in the First World War.  Paul speaks to this condition in the opening of the second chapter:

Kantorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land.

Paul refers to his generation as a "waste land" because it represents the condition of wasted youth.  Paul makes the argument that his generation did not have time to forge rooted relationships like wives, families, and create the bonds that create meaning in one's life.  Paul sees his generation as having become a "waste land" because their sole purpose is to fight in war and to die in it:  "We young men of twenty, however, have only our parents, and some, perhaps, a girl--that is not much, for at our age the influence of parents is at its weakest and girls have not yet got a hold over us. Besides this there was little else--some enthusiasm, a few hobbies, and our school. Beyond this our life did not extend. And of this nothing remains."  

Paul's description of he and his fellow soldiers speak to the horrors of all war, but specifically of World War I.  It was a war that was "sold" to the youth as the embodiment of patriotic fervor, embracing a perceived legacy of warfighting that supposedly transformed boys to men.  Paul has little hesitation in blaming the elders such as teachers and statured people who convinced young people to willingly serve in the war under such a pretense.  In this regard, Paul's description of he and his fellow soldiers as representing a "waste land" reflects the "wasted" sense of youth that guided so many who served, suffered, and died in World War I.  Paul refers to his generation as a "waste land" because of the deception and abandonment that the soldiers realized when they entered the battlefield and saw the horrors of war from the closest frame of reference.  He and his soldiers are a generational waste land because their lives became churned up by the machinery of war.  They did not get a chance to live their lives on the "threshold" of being in the world.  Rather, they simply served a purpose, a cog in the machine that subsumed so many young people, removing their hopes of being anything more than waste products of the war apparatus.  They garden of hope became quickly replaced with the desolation of the desert which is intrinsic to war.  It is in this light where Paul is able to refer to his generation as a "waste land."

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