Is killing in the war ever justified?

Is there a circumstance where killing is ever justified? What if it was an accident, unintentional, or if your own life was at risk? What if it was during the war? World War I was a devastating time where millions of lives were tragically lost. In Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, the characters are exposed to  the harsh realities of World War I, navigating moral dilemmas in an environment where survival often depends on taking lives. The act of killing others in wartime is an ethical dilemma that raises complex questions about morality.  By analyzing the philosophical ideas of Aristotle and using specific moments from the novel, we can gain insights into the complexities of war and evaluate whether killing can ever be ethically justified. 

Aristotle emphasized the cultivation of virtuous habits as the foundation of ethical conduct. He believed in the importance of courage, honesty, justice, and compassion. However, in the brutal environment of war depicted in the novel, these virtues are tested. The soldiers are driven by survival instincts that often override their moral compass. Paul describes his experience of being in a bombardment, and states, “For the first time in three days we can see his[death] face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves” (Remarque 113). When one becomes so close to the face of death, the pursuit of virtuous conduct becomes secondary to the primal need to protect oneself. Aristotle’s philosophy reminds us that war disrupts the formation of virtuous habits and challenges the ethical principles that guide our actions, which may lead to immoral behavior and bloodshed.

In addition, while one has to constantly choose whether to kill or be killed,  the experiences of the characters in the novel demonstrate the profound impact of killing on an individual’s conscience. When Paul kills a man for the first time, he is overwhelmed by guilt and remorse. He describes the dying man’s suffering as an invisible dagger that stabs him(Remarque 221). Aristotle’s belief that happiness depends on oneself resonates with Paul’s internal struggle. The act of killing weighs heavily on his conscience, hindering his ability to find solace and inner peace. This highlights the moral consequences of taking a life, even in the context of war.

Although one must suffer the consequences of their immoral behavior, in the chaos of war, the soldiers’ survival instincts ultimately dominate their actions. Bombardments and constant threats to their lives create an environment where killing becomes a means of self-preservation. Paul articulates how the desire to survive transforms them into murderers. He recalls,“Overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into god only knows what devils”(Remarque 114). Aristotle’s belief that everything and everyone has a purpose in life is challenged by the harsh reality of war, where the purpose often becomes a struggle for survival, undermining traditional moral considerations.

Although Aristotle’s beliefs and philosophies help justify these unvirtuous actions,, the indiscriminate nature of war also undermines Aristotle’s belief in justice and compassion. The trenches of World War I are a harsh environment where soldiers must kill or be killed. The callousness and desensitization that emerge in war are exemplified by Sergeant Oellrich’s proud expression after shooting three men down(Remarque 228). This clashes with Aristotle’s emphasis on justice and the marvels of nature. This is also depicted in the novel when the doctors were insensitive to the number of deaths that have occurred and refused to take special care of Paul’s dear friend, Kemmerich, which resulted in his death. (Remarque 32) This further underscores the disregard for human life that can permeate wartime environments.

Individuals may claim that killing should never be justified, and that there are no circumstances where it is morally right to do so. However, there is a subjective nature of justifying actions in war, which can be exemplified in the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, when Kat contemplates killing a wounded recruit to end his suffering. (Remarque 72). At this moment, he raises a moral dilemma. Aristotle’s philosophy teaches us that moral dilemmas require discernment and an understanding of context. While ending someone’s pain may seem compassionate, the act of killing contradicts the pursuit of virtuous habits. This highlights the complexity of justifying killing in war, where circumstances often blur the lines of right and wrong.

In conclusion, the evaluation of killing others during World War I, as depicted in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” brings to light the profound moral challenges faced by soldiers in the midst of armed conflicts. The brutal realities of war disrupt the pursuit of virtuous habits and ethical principles advocated by Aristotle. The characters’ experiences illustrate the moral burden and internal struggles associated with taking lives. Aristotle’s teachings remind us of the importance of courage, justice, and compassion, yet war often blurs the lines of right and wrong. The subjective nature of justifying actions in war and the erosion of virtues under extreme circumstances raise complex ethical dilemmas. Ultimately, the evaluation prompts us to consider the profound moral complexities of war and the ethical implications of taking lives in the name of patriotism and survival.

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