Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: All Quiet on the Western Front

Mitch Ginsburg in an article in The Times of Israel in August of 2014 wrote: “Leading from the front during Operation Protective Edge, soldiers in command positions accounted for 44% of IDF deaths.”

Maj. Uzi Ben-Shalom, the head of research for the Concept, Doctrine and Training Department of the IDF’s Ground Forces Command, references Shakespeare’s Prince Hal to explain the rationale and the need for leading from the front. He quotes Henry V in which Hal says: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be by brother.” Hal’s statement emphasizes the reality of “shared danger.” Every soldier knows that his commanding officer will demand of himself that which he demands of others.

There is a second reason why the commanding officer should position himself at the front. When he is at the front, he can understand the battlefield better and has more access to critical information.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, the commanders do not share the danger facing the soldiers. The officers in charge of battlefield strategy do not enter the battle, but rather send men into the thick of conflict with a full awareness that many of them will die. It is heart-rending to watch the chaos and tragedy of this unnecessary fighting. The German generals, who know that the war will officially end within minutes, still stubbornly command their soldiers to attack, resulting in massive casualties.

The film opens in 1917 as teenagers Paul Bäumer and his friends Albert and Franz voluntarily enlist in the German army. They are inspired by the patriotic fervor pervading the country and do not realize the reality they will be facing.

Once in battle, their perspective changes; but they have no ability to change the course of events. They must fight even when their commanders know it is a lost cause and the general staff’s only motivation to fight is to gloriously end the war with a German offensive.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a gory film, filled with violence and pictures of death. However, there are moments of pristine beauty when the movie focuses on the intimate friendships of the soldiers, who bond because of a common task and a common humanity. For example, the image of soldiers playfully stealing a goose on a snow-covered farm contrasts sharply with the horrific scenes of men dying on a lonely battlefield. The pain and suffering of the average soldier is the essence of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Judaism has a unique view of the military leader. When the archenemy of the Jewish people attacks, God tells Moses to appoint Joshua to be the military commander if they want to be victorious. Interestingly, Joshua has no military experience, yet he accepts the mission and succeeds. He is motivated by what God wants him to do. He does not act to attain personal glory. He has no interest in pyrrhic victories that have no lasting benefit and that unnecessarily cause the loss of many lives.

Rabbi Zave Rudman writes about the qualities of great Jewish leaders like Joshua. Great Jewish leaders are concerned for the individuals as well as for the masses. The wellbeing of the common soldier as well as the nation is in his psyche. Both are part of his ethical DNA.

Moreover, the officer leads from the front. Rudman observes that the Israel Defense Forces has the highest officer casualty rate in the world. Furthermore, the officer is humble.

Joshua personifies these attributes, and so is qualified to lead the Jewish people. The senior officers we see in All Quiet on the Western Front do not put themselves in harm’s way. They want the image of victory even when it means nothing. For this obsession with pride, the common soldier pays the ultimate price.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at