Sydney M. Williams
“Burrowing into Books”
Reviews of Selected Readings
This initiates a new series. My plan is to write a once-monthly short essay (about 600 words) on books I have recently read or re-read. The purpose is not to provide a critical review of the book, but to explain why I enjoyed them and why I feel they have relevance to life today…at least to mine.
Generally, I read between 30 and 40 books a year, with at least two, and sometimes three, going at the same time; so I won’t write about every book I read. My reading is pretty evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction. In terms of fiction, I range between classics and new; and in terms of non-fiction, I travel broadly among histories and biography. One reason I read as much as I do (apart from the pleasure it affords me) is that during my years of formal education I neglected to concentrate on learning! Since, I have tried to compensate for those lost years. In any event, we should never stop learning.
I hope you enjoy these short essays.
“All Quiet on the Western Front”
Erich Maria Remarque
December 20, 2016
This is the quintessential novel of World War I. Re-reading this book after an absence of years is revealing. In my opinion, it is among the most realistic pieces of war-time writings, like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, or E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed. It is a heartbreaking story told from the perspective of Paul Baumer, who enlisted at 18 and served with three buddies in the German Army during the Great War. His three friends dead, Båumer “…fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: ‘All quiet on the Western Front.’”
This is a novel which all Presidents should read. War, while necessary at times, should be avoided whenever possible; as those who suffer most are not politicians who make war, nor generals who conduct it. It is the foot soldier and innocent civilians who most often pay the ultimate price. My father, having returned from Italy where he served with the 10th Mountain Division, used to say that wars should be fought by those who declare it, a sentiment with which Remarque agrees: “Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins.” Two years into the war, Båumer, musing about his age and place in life and comparing his situation to older soldiers with families of their own, ponders: “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.”
Back at Camp Carson in October 1945, waiting to be mustered out and, with relief from knowing there would be no invasion of Japan, my father – at age 35 one of the older soldiers – wrote to my mother, venting the fear he had hidden from her when in combat: “I become more and more surprised that I ever lived through it all. There would have been very few of us left if it had lasted any longer. Somehow now I feel as if you had been helping me all the time.” Remarque has Båumer speak to the fear made bearable by the camaraderie that develops among soldiers. “It is, he writes, “a great brotherhood…”
So, how to avoid war, and the suffering we see today in Aleppo? There are only two possibilities: One is to retreat from the world, to live within one’s borders, to avoid “foreign entanglements,” to not get involved. But that risks encouraging aggressive behavior by leaders who take advantage of another’s passivity. We cannot forget that, like Shakespeare’s Othello, man remains an untamed animal. The better option is to be economically strong and militarily powerful, to show that we and our allies will not be bullied. The United States is unique. No other nation, so inherently good, has ever dominated the globe as we do today. We are not flawless. There are things we have done wrong and things we can do better, but, would the world be better if Russia or China were dominant? The world will never be rid of evil men and women. And war cannot always be avoided, but we should never forget what it does to the individuals condemned to fight it.
All Quiet on the Western Front is haunting. You (the reader) want to escape, but cannot. The pages turn. The book teaches us that, for the foot soldier, the good die along with the bad.