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All Quiet on Western Front Even Better Than Johnny

On the cover of my All Quiet on the Western Front is printed "the greatest war novel of all time." In a time when it seems like every book bears on its cover either "New York Times Bestseller," "Best-Selling Author" or "Book of the Year Award Finalist," this one lives up to its billing. All Quiet is a masterpiece, a page turning one-nighter, the literary Saving Private Ryan.

The story follows the war experiences of Paul Baumer, young German enlisted, and those of his friends, all of whom Remarque does a remarkable job acquainting the reader with on a personal, almost intimate level. The book becomes increasingly sobering as one by one Paul's friends get snuffed out, or, even worse, die slow and painful deaths. The reader will laugh as Paul and Co. do battle with the ever-present rat(s) of a novel of this sort; be quietly satisfied as they settle the score with the awful Himmeltoss; cheer for them as they find semblence of a normal life for a night with the French women; cry as a pair of boots, something as simple as quality combat boots, become a symbol of all that is lost in war; and cringe, despair of and weep throughout at the true costs of war.

It seems to be as close as one can get to battle without actually being in the trenches. Remarque obviously lived it all, describing in detail the horrors of trench warfare, the inhumanity of throwing fresh, new recruits literally into the fire, the utter terror of the bombing raids, the awful wails of dying men, the maddening shrieks of dying animals. Through the course of the novel, one notices a gradual change in Paul the rookie and Paul the veteran. The turning point -- perhaps one small facet of what Remarque was alluding to in his paragraph-long introduction when he notes, "It (the book) will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war." -- happens as Paul encounters a French soldier, killing him with, as I remember it, a knife. For a time Paul is deeply shocked by the horror of what he has done, seeing this man not as the enemy, but as a fellow human being, a husband, and vowing to write to his wife one day.

And then it fades, as Paul becomes...

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