Desensitization

We talked about this theme in class on Tuesday and I have found it recurring throughout the book so far. One scene that really interested me was when Paul told Kemmerich’s mother that her son had died. I find it very contradicting that he acts in an indifferent way yet he seems to show compassion. Kemmerich was a close friend of his and it greatly saddened him when he died. He even felt bad for his mother and took it upon himself to tell her. Not only does he tell her but he also lies to her about how he died to hopefully reduce even a bit of the anguish that she feels. Yet there is a part of him that cannot understand why she is worried even though he is dead. He has a hard time valuing the individual as an actual person because he has seen so many people die in this war. He has become so used to this that he has detached himself. It is ironic because I feel that if he is truly and completely desensitized he would not show such compassion not only in this scene but in others. There is still that humane part of him that the war has not completely taken away from him but at the same time he is a changed man.

For him his indifferent side and compassionate side are in constant conflict with each other. Part of the reason for his indifference seems to be that he uses it as a coping mechanism because if he were to let his emotions overcome him, he would not last in war. Yet at the same time we see throughout the book him acting as a maternal figure towards other soldiers. In this particular scene, he is probably indifferent for two reasons. One because as stated earlier he has become desensitized but also it could be that he does not want to relive through that terrible moment of watching his friend die and therefore becomes impatient with the mother for repeatedly asking him about Kemmerich’s death.

As I said earlier I just found it interesting how there seem to be two sides to Paul so I just wanted to throw a couple of ideas out there.

4 thoughts on “Desensitization

  1. Not only is Paul desensitized, he’s also lonely and isolated. This scene made me think about how lonely it must be to be a soldier. This entire chapter shows readers how different civilian life is to the life of soldiers and how that difference makes it nearly impossible for the two to relate to each other ever again. The last thing Paul wants to do is talk about the war, but that is the only thing that people back in his hometown want to ask him about because it is so foreign to them. They are worried and curious but they aren’t in it, so they don’t understand the trauma and seriousness of what these 17-25ish year old boys are facing everyday. This disconnect isolates Paul from his family in a devastating way.
    This chapter also had me thinking about the isolation faced between generations of soldiers. If you think about it, a soldier only really has common experiences and mutual understanding with those in the same war, or maybe even the same regiment. In present day, a veteran of WW1 has very little in common with a veteran from WW2 or the Vietnam war or the civil war. The weapons and strategies used in war change and develop so quickly that some things are unique to a certain war. Physical locations also prevent veterans of different wars from having common experiences and a sense of community. Imagine how lonely that must be.
    What soldiers and veterans do have in common regardless of which war they fought in is the feelings that come with loosing fellow soldiers in battle, fighting for your life and country, and actually killing other humans. These are all things that most people who do not go into war will never experience.
    Paul no longer fits in with his family and the people in his hometown, but by taking leave he also has not gone through all of the same experiences as Albert, and Kat, so he feels much less connected to them now too.
    This whole thought process struck me from the same chapter and scene as the original post so I thought I’d add a different perspective.

  2. I felt this scene really played into showing Paul’s loss of innocenence, while also still recognizing how he is still young. He has seen death, knows of the horrors of the war, lost friends and comrades, and the list of the things he has been through could continue. It is something that in his mind, has become normal because he has been desensitized. But, I believe he still feels the anguish that you reference because while he may feel grown up as a result of the way, there is no denying the fact that he is still young in years. No matter what he has gone through, and how desensitized he becomes, I personally feel Paul will always recognize other emotions (even if he struggles to understand them) because he recognizes what he and his fellow soldiers have lost.

  3. I thought the scene with his friends mother caught two very different points of view. A mother longs for her child and wants her son to not have suffered in death. She knows he went to war and that pain would have been a part of his death from all the reports. But she wants her child to have not suffered.

    Paul is a man in a very different sense than his friend’s mother recognizes. She almost treats him like a child wanting the truth she’s looking for even when they both know it’s not what she hoped for. And Paul does move into the parental role for a moment with her repeated requests for the story of her son’s death. He’s not a man in her eyes, he is still just a boy who has gone to war and seen death. But she uses him in the maternal role as if he could transfer her love and empathy for her son across time to her own child’s death.

  4. Something that really struck me about Paul’s downfall into desensitisation was the scene in which he wishes he had never come home on leave. In class we talked about how in some places commanding officers viewed leave as a way many of the men in war would become emotionally weaker and not be able to handle battle, but unfortunately with Paul we see the opposite is the case. He can’t handle life at home anymore and when he does want to leave it is even more difficult. If it had been me in that situation, I’m sure the only way I would’ve been able to cope would be if I had been desensitized to everything going on around me.

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