“Comrade, I did not want to kill you…. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and your fellowship. Forgive me, comrade, we always see it too late.”
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I look up, once in a while, from the words that I’m reading to remind myself what I’m doing. So easy to be an English teacher, sometimes, to read words aloud with passion, poring over their meaning and forgetting to connect them to the reality that lent them meaning in the first place. If not for my students, I would get lost in books. It’s their search for an exit point that keeps me grounded.
Today it’s imperative that I remember–and almost impossible to forget–where I am. I am sitting on the upper edge of a weedy trench, eight feet deep, around and inside of which fifteen students sit or lean or stand, avoiding mud and shrapnel, boulders and barbed wire. We are ten feet from the 1916 German front line, on Hartmannswillerkopf in Alsace, present-day France. They are huddled around me as I, the lone English teacher on this field trip, read the bitter words of Remarque’s post-war reflection, All Quiet on the Western Front.
It is quiet here today. I’ve told the students to imagine this hill without any plants, with only the dirt and the rocks and the metal, the No Man’s Land of French nightmares.
Hartmannswillerkopf is still at war, but in this slowest battle the mountain is winning, absorbing back into itself the ugly remnants of war that still scar its surface. Nearly a century has passed since the Armistice left the hilltop at rest, and though no one thought to tear down the trenches, little has been done to preserve them, either. We look down today on the painting of dying leaves on the hillsides, see vines and grass and nettles choking out the barbed wire and softening the once-forbidding fortifications.
For hours we’ll explore this place with wide-open eyes, scouring the hillside for archeological souvenirs, popping in and out of foxholes and climbing through muddy tunnels. It reminds me of Fort Casey, the abandoned outpost on Whidbey Island in which we used to play Capture the Flag in high school. And yet these structures tell not of American paranoia but actual tides of destruction, with only these hasty crevices for shelter. It is a haunting privilege to stand here, surreal and strange. I try to look forward another hundred years, to dream of what this haunted hill might look like then. Will we still be coming back to remember it?
It’s important to be here, feeling this wire poking me in the back as I read out loud, seeing its rusty hands behind my students’ backs. How often we forget that war–and history in general–is more than a clash of ideas.
I ask them about the ideas in conflict in World War I, and they can’t tell me. World War II they know by heart, along with the American wars, Revolutionary and Civil, but this war, the one we’ve come to visit, is unclear even in abstractions. Perhaps that’s why we don’t study it as much, because the ideas don’t make sense to us anymore in the light of how much was lost in debating them. We can only remember without understanding, living with the unsettling reality that humans are capable of killing with even less understanding.
“Today you, tomorrow me,” I continue reading. “But if I come out of it, comrade, I will fight against this, that has struck us both down; from you, taken life–and from me–? Life also. I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again.”
This is why we come, I realize as I watch the students scamper around craters over the lush hillside. We come to remember that wars are more than words, more than difficult decisions made by presidents, more than buttons pushed and congressional orders. Here in No Man’s Land, it’s people we remember, a montage of specific loss. We vow to let this site rest, that the weapons will sink into the earth and the fortresses fade into the history of horrors no longer needed.
It shall never happen again.