Paul Bamer: A Buddhist World War I Soldier

The philosophy of Buddhism offers a unique perspective to evaluate the morality of Paul Bamer, the protagonist of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Paul’s journey as a soldier in World War I is filled with trauma and despair. He struggles to come to terms with the brutality of war and the loss of his comrades. Despite the obstacles he faces, Paul’s actions embody fundamental ideals of Buddhism.

The root of suffering is attachment, as taught by Buddhism. Paul struggles to control his emotions while his mother is dying of cancer. His attachment to his mother causes him great suffering, but he finds comfort in being with her during her final moments. During one of his military leaves where he stays at his childhood home, he narrates, “And so I take her to her room. I stay with her a little while,” (Remarque 184). Though seeing his mother in a fatal state brings pain to Paul, Buddhism teaches that it is key to face suffering. In addition, Paul becomes unable to mourn his dead comrades after many have fallen. He recalled that “Parting from my friend Albert Kropp was very hard. But a man gets used to that sort of thing in the army,” (Remarque 269). Over time, Bamer became desensitized to the pain of loss due to constant suffering. Despite Paul’s desensitized mental state being concerning, it shows he has nearly overcome suffering.

“If you find no one to support you on the spiritual path, walk alone” is another Buddhist teaching. Paul’s inability to express his feelings about the war or even talk about his experiences demonstrates his struggle to find someone outside of the army to fully confide in. He becomes isolated and unable to connect with his family or society at large, which only adds to his suffering. Though Paul felt he could confide in his comrades, unlike his family, he soon characterized another Buddhist line: “one should not look for a sanctuary in anyone except oneself.”  The attachment is temporary, as his friends slowly die around him. Once again, Paul had no one to rely on except himself.

“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world” is a common Buddhist idea. Paul’s actions towards the Russian prisoners demonstrate his compassion and ability to show love towards others, even in times of war. He pities the prisoners and gives them cigarettes and some of his mother’s bread, showing kindness and empathy towards those who are seen as enemies. Paul shows the same level of kindness and empathy to other enemies when he kills a French soldier in defense, but while the French soldier is dying, Paul bandages the stab wound and gives him water to drink. This action shows Paul’s compassion and ability to give love towards others, even to opposing soldiers of enemy countries. His love towards his enemies demonstrates his ability to love in the way that Buddhists are taught to.

In conclusion, the teachings of Buddhism offer a unique lens through which to evaluate the morality of Paul Bamer in All Quiet on the Western Front. Despite the trauma of war and his struggles to come to terms with it, Paul’s actions demonstrate his compassion, sensitivity, and empathy towards others. While he may suffer from attachment and isolation, he shows an ability to radiate boundless love towards the entire world, as taught by Buddhism. His actions towards his comrades and enemies alike show his humanity and offer an insight into the teachings of Buddhism that highlight the importance of compassion, empathy, and kindness.

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