To deal with all the death, pain and sorrow thrown at them by the war, the soldiers had to build up defence mechanisms against the overwhelming emotions and losses they battled with each day. One of such mechanisms is daydreaming, where the characters to begin to think or say things they know logically could never happen but do so anyway as it provides an outlet. The narrator, Paul, is one of the characters seen deploying this coping mechanism to keep himself sane for the most part. He daydreams and relives his school days, dreams about the boys they once were before the war taught them other lessons learnt outside the classroom walls. When he was home waiting for his leave to be over, he would kill time by brooding so he didn’t have to think of his dying, poor mother.
On his death bed, Franz Kemmerich, a childhood friend of Paul, dreams of his aspiration to be a head-forester. Paul aids his wishful thinking by encouraging Kemmerich’s and assuring him good health and the chance to see his family again. If the world were perfect, maybe Kemmerich should still go on and do what he wished but it is not so. He dies slowly with each passing second holding on to the dreams he will never have again. Detering daydreamt to a place so far away the day he saw that cherry blossom. He went to his farm and wife in his head and he never came back. Something as peaceful as daydreaming created such strong impulses and longing for home which led him to his death. This shows that although coping mechanisms might be needed and helpful, they don’t offer permanent solutions and if abused, they do more harm than good.
Looking back at my life, there are areas where I used daydreaming as an escape to from reality. I was sent to a boarding school at a young age and I would cope with homesickness this way. My situation is nothing compared to what the soldiers went through in the war yet, making up alternate universes let me forget about this one that I hated living in. A big difference is that when I would zone out, leaving the current world and into one of my own, I would dream of silly things, like two-faced ponies and people with funny faces. But they didn’t have that luxury, they thought of all they can never have, and it helped them cope with the tremendous pain they felt. They daydreamed of lost dreams and old memories.
Displacement is another defense mechanism used a lot by the soldiers in this book. A lot of feelings and emotions are taking away from the true source and placed on other people, objects or ideas because it is a lot easily to process it that way. After the death of Kemmerich, Muller seems to only care about the shoes, making him come off as heartless but that isn’t the case. We know how much Muller cared for Kemmerich when Paul says “ Were Kemmerich able to the make any use of the boots, Muller would rather go bare-foot over barbed wire nscheme how to get hold of them” (20). Kemmerich dying is a loss for Muller too and he found it easy to displace the feeling of losing a friend onto gaining a new pair of boots than having to mourn and deal with grief: “One could not bear to think of such a thing for grief” (20). He could save the shoes but not his friend so he picked what he could control and saved what he could.
Another instance of displacement is the ambushing of Himmlestoss. The soldiers had very strong feelings towards they war and none of them wish to be there yet there were. All the anger had for those responsible for them being at the trenches had to be redirected somewhere and Himmlestoss was a perfect vessel. They fill up their time with speaking of ways to get revenge on Himmlestoss now and even after the war. Despite being in a situation where it would seem foolish to plan something as silly, they do as a mode of anger release.
Displacing emotions has always come easy for me. There were many instances in my life when I would be annoyed or angry at my parents, teachers or any one in authority over me and because I couldn’t take my anger out on them, I would redirected it to things or people that I could. My sister has had to deal with me taking out anger that was not meant for her on her. But she was an easy vessel for my anger, so I did. I understand now how unfair that was to her and I should confront the source of my anger head on rather than be a coward and be annoyed with her. This was an abusive way to cope with my strong emotions.
Coping mechanisms are used unconsciously and until brought to light, it might take a while to find the true source of whatever emotion is being suppressed or overly manifested. They are crutches to lean on when dealing with traumatic incidents but after a while, we must learn to walk on our own and come to terms with our situation and emotions. It is sad that the men in this book never got to.