The military historian Yuval Noah Harari accounts for the enduring allure of war by calling attention to a change in soldiers' memoirs that occurred in the mid-eighteenth century. Soldiers began to describe how they felt rather than what they did. Harari introduces the term flesh-witnessing to distinguish inner experience from eyewitness testimony. Flesh-witnesses speak of combat as a transformative and indescribable experience comparable to the sublime. This view is often attributed to militarists, but Harari shows that it also motivates pacifists. Even antiwar arguments like those of Erich Maria Remarque are based on the authority of the flesh-witness. To test Harari's claims, I invited ROTC officers to speak to students enrolled in a course titled British Literature: The Twentieth Century about their military experience. The juxtaposition of Harari's research and the officers' comments provided a framework for teaching All Quiet on the Western Front and other texts about war. Whether war is portrayed as painful or exhilarating, degrading or ennobling, it is widely idealized as a crucible for the development of the self. This view makes war stories irresistible, whatever political views writers and readers may hold.
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Joyce Wexler; Beyond Pacifism: Teaching World War I Literature from Left to Right. Pedagogy 1 October 2017; 17 (3): 541–547. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15314200-3975655
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