I have spent the last two weeks carrying around a chunk of bloody flesh. It is masquerading as a paperback novel called All Quiet on the Western Front, but in truth, it's the ravaged heart of a man who was a soldier once. If there is a work of literature more searing in its description of modern warfare's personal horrors, I have not read it and don't know that I could withstand it.
I started reading Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel -- a perennial high school lit fave -- for the sake of civic edification. You know the drill: Read a certified Great Book, participate in a book-club discussion, and move on. What I did not expect was passages like this:
``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. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.''
The narrator is Paul Baumer, a World War I German infantryman. Remarque, a veteran of that war, drew from his own excruciating experiences in writing this scalding narrative. To read All Quiet is to understand why World War I was the suicide of European civilization.
All Quiet is thought by many to be the greatest war novel because it tells the universal combat experience of the soldier: the sanity-crushing bombardments, the murder of ideals, the barbaric clawing for survival, the scorn for authority figures who don't suffer the consequences of their decisions, the alienation of fighting men from the people back home, who can't possibly understand what they endure, and so forth.
It's impossible to be released from the world of this novel and regard one's own responsibility as a citizen of a democracy for the current and future wars with equanimity. So many of us never served in combat, yet we rallied uncritically to the call of those who valorized martial prowess, extolled American power, and spoke of killing and maiming -- and the risk of being killed and maimed -- using words like ''cakewalk.'' Did you? I did. And now look.
Remarque emerged from his experience in the Great War as a self-described ''militant pacifist.'' That's understandable but hard to defend. Pacifism did not stop the likes of Hitler and never will. As shattering as All Quiet is, the wretched truth remains that war we will always have with us. Because men are born to trouble, sometimes war is a necessary evil.
Ah, but on that one word -- necessary -- hangs the world. On it hangs countless ruined worlds: the world of every man who will die, and every man who will destroy another man, and every mother who will mourn for her lost son, every widow and every orphan, and every soldier who will come home defiled and broken, having left some part of his body, mind or soul on the battlefield.
As I read the final pages, I heard my 3-year-old stirring in his bedroom. I went to check on him and stood there regarding with wonderment the blond boy slumbering in the soft glow of the night-light. I prayed hard for him and his brother to be spared war's desolation. As I will pray constantly for their Uncle Mike -- faithful husband, devoted father and brave soldier -- when he deploys to Iraq this month.
But you know, we've got to do more than pray. As C.S. Lewis put it, ''A long face is not a moral disinfectant.'' Yet a still, small moment like the one by my boy's bedside, with Remarque's novel in my hand, speaks wisdom and conversion to the heart. Kentucky poet Wendell Berry has written:
``There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with you in silence beside the forest pool./ There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys./ There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who dances and sings and is the brightness of my house./ There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.''
Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa recently told The Wall Street Journal: ''I think that literature has the important effect of creating free, independent, critical citizens who cannot be manipulated.'' Just so.
Rod Dreher is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.
Copyright 2007 Miami Herald Media Co.