We are so completely played out that in spite of our great hunger we do not think of the provisions. Then gradually we become something like men again.
Paul describes how, in the hours after a battle, the war lingers with the soldiers. The men are exhausted from fear and exertion, and the shock mutes all their other thoughts and needs until they can manage to temporarily forget. This post-battle fog is a grim glimpse at the rest of their lives. Though the men are no longer face-to-face with danger, their trauma remains with them, and even if they survive the war, they will continue to carry that trauma forever.
We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they are past, sink down in us like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once. If we did that, we should have been destroyed long ago. I soon found out this much:–terror can be endured so long as a man simply ducks;—but it kills, if a man thinks about it.
Paul realizes that the soldiers’ trauma can be ignored but never eradicated. Soldiers must suppress their emotional damage to continue fighting, but the damage remains, growing worse with every brush with death. Paul wonders when his horror will become too strong to suppress. Regardless of any man’s skill or outlook or strategy, war erodes everything. Paul understands that the things war takes from him can never be rebuilt or replaced, and dreads the day when he will confront the yawning void inside himself.
I take one of the books, intending to read, and turn over the leaves. But I put it away and take out another. There are passages in it that have been marked. I look, turn over the pages, take up fresh books. Already they are piled up beside me. Speedily more join the heap, papers, magazines, letters. I stand there dumb. As before a judge. Dejected. Words, Words, Words—they do not reach me. Slowly I place the books back in the shelves. Nevermore.
Paul visits his home on leave and tries to read the books in his childhood bedroom, but cannot. War has dulled Paul’s receptiveness to thought, to his memories, to human culture, to anything but thoughts of the horror. His experiences have locked him into the present moment, where only his animal instincts will serve him, and he can’t possibly escape to the realm of stories and imagination. The books may as well be blank.
I can go no further—mother, mother, Paul is here. I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and rifle. I hold them as tight as I can, but I cannot take another step, the staircase fades before my eyes, I support myself with the butt of my rifle against my feet and clench my teeth fiercely, but I cannot speak a word, my sister’s call has made me powerless.
When Paul first arrives at his family’s doorstep, he is overcome with emotion. Upon actually seeing his childhood house, he realizes how far he has come from its innocence, how much he has lost, how he may never be a part of it again. Until now, Paul’s home existed only in his memories, but now that he has reentered reality, his home is forever altered. The house is just a building. His family members are like strangers. Paul’s loved ones are right in front of him, and yet he reacts as though he is grieving their deaths.
Our thoughts are clay, they are moulded with the changes of the days;—when we are resting they are good; under fire, they are dead. Fields of craters within and without.
Here, Paul describes how the war has remade the men in its own image. They have robotically adapted to the rhythms of life on the front, feeling only what war allows them to feel. We are not fighting, so I suppose we feel happy. We are fighting, so I suppose we no longer feel. The soldiers are like the land around them, filled with holes, destroyed by shells, subject to destruction. They have no choice in the matter. Trauma has fixed their lives in place.