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The major theme of the novel dwells on the waste and emptiness of war. Thousands of lives are lost just because a few men in authority want more land and more power. Ordinary people, with valuable aspirations and dreams, are pulled into the battle and fight valiantly, only to have a grave as a reward. This sad theme is developed in every chapter of the novel.
Kropp, one of Baumer's former classmates who has joined the infantry because of Kantorek, is known as a thinker. Throughout the book, he ponders the brutality of war. He points to the difference between a man in civilian society and the same man in the military; given a little authority, the military man lets the power go to his head and wants to gain more by killing more people and seizing more land. He propels the war forward, like a never-ending vortex sucks in all the innocent soldiers. Kropp further believes that the generals from both sides should be placed in an arena to fight it out amongst themselves, sparing the ordinary people.
It is really Baumer, however, that becomes the mouthpiece for the feeling of loss and despair caused by the war. After he kills Duval and realizes that the enemy is just another scared soldier, like himself, Baumer asks in a soliloquy, "Why do they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours and that we have the same fear of death and the same dying and the same agony. Forgive me, comrade how could you be my enemy."
A minor theme of the novel is that the by-product of war is moral decay. The constant presence of fear, death, violence, and destruction during war numbs the senses, desensitizes the soul, and kills the conscience. Soldiers quickly become immune to death and the suffering of others. Kemmerich's watch is stolen by the medical personnel, who are supposed to be caring for him in the hospital. Muller callously asks Kemmerich for his leather boots since he will not need them any more as an amputee. Baumer and his friends are considered heroes for beating up Corporal Himmelstoss. No one but Baumer seems to retain his humanity.
The only thing that matters for most soldiers is a personal fight for survival. Even for Baumer, it was fear and the desire for self- preservation that made him immediately stab Charles Duval when he joined him in the shell hole. When he tells the story to his friends, they unanimously agree that Baumer has done the right thing in murdering the French soldier. Only Baumer seems to question his actions. Baumer is convinced that the war has created a lost generation devoid of morality and hope.