Sunday, February 06, 2005

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

I just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic novel of a German soldier’s experience in World War I. It’s an amazing account of the foot soldier’s war, and what the knowledge of possibly being killed in the next second does to a man. As the main character says, “life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death.” The author, Erich Maria Remarque, was himself a soldier in World War I and was wounded five times.

I was particularly struck by the chapter in which the main character talks about his time being at home during leave and how he felt so awkward and out of place to return to the civilized world. I couldn’t help but reread that section because I will soon see my husband back in the U.S. for his R&R. It will be the first time we will be in the same room since he left for Kuwait in May 2004. And I wonder if he will have the same impressions described by Remarque.

In the book, he says: “There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us…I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world…I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me. For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that…They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend…I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow, how can that fill a man’s life, he ought to smash it to bits; how can they do it, while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes and star-shells go up, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches.”

I’ve talked to my husband about this, if it would be better if he didn’t come home, if it would be too hard then to face the patrols, the raids, the IEDs, the fighting. After he’s worn civilian clothing again and can eat a meal without a rifle by his side, will it be too much to put his desert boots back on? Or will it be a relief to go back to Iraq because that is the world he knows now, to return to the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, eating MREs and sleeping on top of an armored humvee. And of course, I wonder how he has changed, and if he will feel alone and isolated, even from me. He assures me that he wants to come home, even with the knowledge that the stay won’t be permanent.

Other army wives who have seen their husbands on R&R have told me how agonizing it was to say goodbye the second time. But it will be different for us, I know. Because when he goes back this time, I will also be leaving and the two of us will be returning to Iraq. So perhaps during this R&R, both of us will be feeling a bit removed from our American surroundings. And in that shared feeling of disconnect, we will find our way to each other again.