We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill.
Here, Paul reflects on war’s capacity to reduce men to instinctual animals. When he and his comrades fight on the frontline, all conscious thought and human emotion is erased, leaving room only for the will to survive. This desperation is a far cry from more traditional depictions of war as a proving ground for glory. Real war is not an adventure. Real war is legions of scared boys, frantically killing in sheer terror.
I open my eyes—my fingers grasp a sleeve, an arm. A wounded man? I yell to him—no answer—a dead man. My hand gropes farther, splinters of wood—now I remember again that we are lying in the graveyard.
Paul takes cover from bombardment in the dirt and finds that he has holed up in a grave. The bombs destroy the cemetery’s coffins, unearthing corpses all around the soldiers, and Paul finds himself nestled with a decaying body. Despite the horror that any person would feel in such a situation, Paul must fight on. This nightmarish experience shows the extent to which war destroys any concepts of human decency. Not even the dead are safe from the destruction of battle.
A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out.
Paul arrives at a hospital and realizes that here is where one truly understands the consequences of war. The dead and dying surround him, thousands of bloodied, screaming, dismembered soldiers. Paul knows this hospital is only one of many, and he cannot square the scale of the devastation with the idea of humans as a thinking, intelligent species. He searches for the worth of anything humans have created throughout history, but feels the unimaginable horror around him negates everything.
It is not now the time but I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended. My heart beats fast: this is the aim, the great, the sole aim, that I have thought of in the trenches; that I have looked for as the only possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling.
Here, Paul hopes he can bury his humanity somewhere deep within himself and save his human essence from the war. Even if he survives the end of the war, he struggles to see any path forward through life after his experience. Paul’s only hope, he believes, is to hang on to some shred of his soul, even as he numbs himself to survive. Eventually, Paul begins to feel that saving his own humanity is impossible. This erosion of the soldier’s personality, for a fight he scarcely believes in, is the true savagery of the war.
The man gurgles. It sounds to me as though he bellows, every gasping breath is like a cry, a thunder—but it is not only my heart pounding. I want to stop his mouth, stuff it with earth, stab him again, he must be quiet, he is betraying me.
Paul stabs a man in the thick of battle, but doesn’t fully kill him. Paul cannot bring himself to finish the job, but considers muffling the man’s cries of pain to save his own skin. This horrible choice shows the depths to which battle brings a person. In any other situation, Paul would drop everything and help his fellow man, but here in a muddy foxhole, bombarded by bullets and explosives, Paul can only callously silence the other’s screams.