All Quiet on the Prison Front


by Yale Magrass

Changing Lives Through Literature may be one of the best rehabilitation programs ever conceived. However, the goal of rehabilitation is to help someone adjust to society, and indeed, once someone has engaged in violent crime they need to be brought to recognize how self-destructive that is. Implicitly, in rehabilitation, the question “is this a society to which you should adjust?” is seldom raised.  Society becomes the standard to which the individual must conform. Nevertheless, if someone is to turn away from violence, he (males in particular) must understand the forces which drew him to it.

The United States may present itself as peace-loving democracy, but it is actually a militaristic empire, conceived in slavery and genocide, with a long history of atrocities against many peoples, including Native Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Vietnamese and Iraqis. Whether violence is innate within human nature or contradictory to it, the people who orchestrate such a society need to produce cannon fodder, ready to kill and die at their command.

The military and prisons draw from similar populations.  Judges sometimes offered enlisting in the army as an alternative sentence to jail.  I propose including All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, often acclaimed as the greatest novel ever written about war, in the repertoire of Changing Lives Through Literature. 

Although it is about life in the German trenches during World War I, the horrors it depicts are typical of virtually all wars, fought by almost all countries, including the American invasion of Iraq. It tells how boys growing up in Germany were raised to think of war as something glorious, adventurous and fun, only to endure trauma, more brutal than nearly any prison, with a much lower chance of being released alive, for a cause which no one understood.  It suggests the typical French or British soldier was no different than the average German, with whom they might have been friends had they met somewhere other than the battlefield.  The front line soldiers of warring countries may have far more in common with each other than with their respective officers, who, in sending them to kill and die, could be their real enemies.

photo by flickr user skeljA militarist state must raise boys, ready and able to commit violence, ideally enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies.  As the typical American boy grows up, the media inundates him with violence and perhaps immunizes him to it.  For generations, boys have been watching John Wayne Westerns, showing how lawmen must conquer outlaws and the land must be purged of savages. British spy James Bond is “licensed to kill.”  Without vigilant law enforcement ordinary citizens will be at the mercy of psychopaths, like the one who terrorized the countryside in No Country for Old Men.  Bomber pilots, like John McCain, are upheld as paragons of heroic moral virtue. For the generation now filling the prisons, while growing up, killing bad guys in video games was among the most popular recreational activities.

Rulers, who need cannon fodder, do not want an education system that makes all students independent creative thinkers. Schools in the neighborhoods, where most soldiers and prisoners grow up, tend to emphasize drill and rote memorization. Rather than fostering intellectual curiosity, they transform learning into a tedious alienating experience.  This may not be a failure, but fulfillment of its true purpose. They leave pupils angry and frustrated, but suggestible, because they have not developed the critical tools to understand the source of their discontent.  For many of them, Changing Lives through Literature may be their first exposure to the possibility that learning can be something else. The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools turn over their student rosters to military recruiters.  A school is deemed successful if it sends its products to the army as well as to college.  The more repelled by learning a student is, the more open to the military recruiter he is likely to be.

Vague inarticulate discontent is volatile and can go in polar opposite directions. People, acclimated to violence, but without the necessary analytical or social skills to maintain a good job, may find themselves on the street, aimless, if they do not end up in the army.  In some cases, the military may not even want them. They must redirect their aggression somewhere, perhaps against the society, which bred them for violence, and crime might be a likely alternative.  The street gang might provide a source of social support and camaraderie. In the face of the terrors of the front line, the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front bonded with each other to point of being willing to sacrifice for their fellow pawns, even if they thought the cause for which they were sent to kill and die was a sham.

To end violent crime, we must first transform a society which uses violence as its means to assert domination. Changing Lives through Literature may provide very effective means to help victims, once the damage is done.

Yale Magrass is a Chancellor Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where he teaches “Social Thought,”  “Political Sociology”  and “Social Impact of Science and Technology.”  He is the author of three books and over thirty articles.  His most recent book is Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good (with Charles Derber). 





12 thoughts on “All Quiet on the Prison Front

  1. Yale: Yes AQOWF is an important book, and it is the kind of book that should work well in some of our CLTL sessions. As you indicate, at least indirectly, reading and discussing good literature can help alleviate violence. I am convinced that CLTL has done just that on a number of occasions. Your notion of “rehab” here is also interesting. I would suggest that CLTL is not so much interested in ” rehab” as it is in making people more self-reflective and thoughtful. I agree with you when you note how dangerous such a process can be. It’s democracy in action.

  2. Thanks for your post, Yale. I have not yet read All Quiet on the Western Front, but from your insight here it sounds like this could be a useful book for CLTL groups in certain areas of the country.

    Your points about the military and jails often drawing on the same populations of individuals are well-taken. The rosy picture of the soldiering life they receive from recruiters and advertisements lead many men (and women) to join the military when they feel they have nowhere else to turn. Some, unfortunately, are called upon to commit acts of violence and many experience the consequences and horrors of war long after they are called to serve.

    At the same time, I hesitate to depict our nation’s military as a boarding house for these lost and aimless individuals. My father served in the Air Force for thirty years and many of my high school peers elected to serve as well. Some of these students joined for the reasons listed above and their choice had a positive impact on their life, imbuing them with self-esteem and a sense of purpose. Additionally, many of our brightest and ambitious students also chose (of their own volition) to pursue a military career. While the military may be a dumping ground for some, it gives many others a chance to turn their lives around and to excel.

    I agree that we must cease using violence to end our disputes with the rest of the world. Yet, we must also be careful not to equate the military ONLY with this type of violence and therefore depict it as something inherently negative. For many individuals (admittedly those who are NOT called upon to fight overseas), the institution can be a positive and reforming influence.

  3. This is a very thought provoking post. Unlike Jenny, I have no personal experience of the military to speak from.
    I think it’s true that for some (those who don’t see combat), it’s a valid field of aspiration with training that does help build character and even heal lives that were broken before entrance into the military.

    But I think I agree more with an old friend, Don Baker, who served in WW II and who said “NOTHING is worse than war.” Certainly, nothing is worse than the way we wage war now, with so much “collateral” damage, which often now includes deliberate damage to women and children. This is really horrifying to me. An interesting book on this subject (though not one that would work for CLTL students) is a book called A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin — a feminist response to the military which gives the history of when it became permissable (and now routine) to kill innocent bystanders.

    My experience with prison-or-miliatry bound individuals is limited to the women I teach in my CLTL classes, most of them African American, most in their thirties and almost all single mothers. Except for what they go through in raising their sons (a lot), they seem to me to have a healthy disregard for the way our society encourages violence. They’ve lost sons to violence, they’re seen it first hand, they live with it in their neighborhoods — they have no illusions about it being a place of honor and glory.

    So I guess I would have to say, in response to Yale Magrass, that women look at and experience this side of our culture differently than men do and given that they are usually their son’s first teachers, what they think about violence is an important subject and one that should be more deeply considered.

  4. This is interesting and extremely relevant. A video/ dvd that I often use in a Women’s Studies course, Tough Guise, by Jackson Katz, shows how the “cowboy/ GI Joe” ideology permeates our culture.

    Young men’s appearance and behavior issues are addressed in Jackson Katz’s video recording Tough Guise. He explicates the cultural concern with toughness in a social and historical context, finding that the civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights movements challenged male power and led to a renewed assertion of strength and toughness. The DVD presents the ways that images of male power have changed during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For example, the GI Joe doll (called an action figure so as not to be confused with girls’ toys) has grown in size, muscle mass, and weaponry over time. Tough Guise: violence, media, and the crisis in masculinity / Media Education Foundation ; directed by Sut Jhally ; produced by Susan Ericsson, Sanjay Talreja ; written by Jackson Katz, Jeremy Earp, 2002.

  5. Professor Magrass has made a powerful statement about the violent genesis of our culture. When I have some sustained quiet time, I will send a response to his historical observations. I certainly agree that CLTL has the potential to defuse much violence and many men who have taken my class have testified to that fact. We should abandon the word rehabiltation and replace it with habilitation, a word that more accurately describes most of the folks who commit serious crimes.
    I have been teaching prison inmates for 20 years and they verify the fact that they were not reflective and responsible adults prior to their incarceration.
    Long live the Waxler and Kane Revolution!
    Rice University

  6. Yes, I agree with Larry. CLTL can defuse violence. It’s interesting to note that even when CLTL graduates fall back and commit another offense, that new crime is often non-violent. We did one study, for example, that suggested that people who had committed crimes, such as assault, against other human beings before coming through CLTL, usually, if they did offend again, committed less “weighty” crimes, against property, for example, rather than against other people after graduating from CLTL. I am convinced that reading and discussing good literature can help alleviate violence. I think such engagement with the language (reading and talking) gives shape to pent-up rage, at times, gives it a name and a form.

  7. Nice post Yale. In one of my classes which, is a musical spin off of CLTL, I was at a Halfway House, and the topic was PTSD. It was a women’s house. One woman, who had previously not spoken, raised her hand from the back of the class. She offered two words and repeated them. She said, “Hurt people, hurt people”. I still can’t stop thinking about it. In our country we teach people not to hit by hitting them. When a child hits another, the mother takes the child by the hand, and slaps them on the back of their hand, saying do not hit others. Our government’s way of saying, do as I say, not as I do, can be very confusing. Regarding CLTL’s usefulness in “treating violence”, I say any time you can get people talking, it is a good thing.

  8. In our Dorchester class we think a lot about whether the society is one to which our student should adjust. We share Dr. Magrass’s view of the fundamental reasons why it is not. At the same time, we try to build an alternative society in the classroom. Students learn quickly that such authority as we wield – no absences, be on time, only one person talk at a time, no cell phones – isn’t the kind of authority that invites their resistance. They can see why the minimal rules are necessary, and students who get past the second week have no trouble complying. Even Judge Singleton’s presence in the class was not as a feared authority but as a human being who had shared the same kind of street experiences that shaped the men, but who managed to rise above those experiences. The movie he showed about his father’s own troubled life was an important turning point for the class, who found in it an honesty and openness, alon g with an example of rising above circumstances.

    More important, in small group discussion and, after three or four weeks, open discussion, we experience a community of sympathetic listening and openness – for most of our students, the first experience of such an atmosphere. Such discussion, where there is no pressure for group compliance to a single view, is a positive community in action.

    Student evaluations consistently support the view that we can create in class what can’t easily be found outside. Here are a few of the students’ observations:

    This course gives the chance for the oppressed to speak out, which is a healing power in itself, and gives in depth knowledge into other people’s lives, the struggles of others.
    What I got out of the readings is that we are not alone. The troubles and turmoils that we go through have been going on for decades. A lot of people’s lives were affected, maybe not changed. Some things will always be the same. It’s up to you to change yourself, and you must want to do it or it will never happen. (Steven)
    The first large discussion group really impacted me. To finally have everyone together in our group, and to see the conversation grow into a collective understanding was awesome. Even if the result was with a view that the world/hood is “hell.” It felt as if the group was finally on the same page.
    The very first class I experienced a positive euphoria, a mild, calm sensation. Sharing this with other people has had positive results. Also, just the fact of being part of a routine, and nearing the end, the feeling of accomplishment, something I haven’t felt in a long time. The course has been somewhat of a stimulant for me, it has opened my mind a little more. No matter how minute the change, a change is a change. I will at least take what I put into it. I will try to carry on with the momentum.

    It was not for us to choose this life at all, but we do have a choice in changing it. I will take all I know to reality, and utilize it with every step I take, in order to succeed in my goals as a black man. Not only am I doing this for myself, but for future generations to come.
    It has been a whole metamorphosis over this time. As we delved into books, we slowly began to discuss the literature. As the discussions continued, we went to exchanging more personal ideas and feelings, which brought us to a closer understanding as men. I was able to say things and express views which were not met with mere respect. Intellectuality, and openness as a group to hear stories and strong views did invigorate my critical thinking. It was nice to exercise my mind again. It is nice to see that no matter who you are, where you’re from, you can find and relate through common experience, to know each other as men.

    What I draw from this is that, despite the hypocrisies that Dr. Magrass calls to our attention, we have the power to show students a counter-world in which not domination and force but open discourse discloses a path to a saner society.

  9. i Bert,
    I want to thank you for your response to my blog. There is a contradiction for which there is no easy answer, how do you give people the tools they need to survive in a society that is fundamentally flawed, one that is arranged in a hierarchy in which a few stay on top by putting many on the bottom, that exists by terrorizing much of the rest of the world, while claiming to be the embodiment of peace, order, freedom and democracy? What do you say to people whom the rulers of such a society intends to use as pawns, whom they will lock up or even kill if they do not cooperate? You must provide them with the survival skills, which requires some kind of adjustment, but at the same time you want to make them aware, even when such awareness may make adjustment all the more difficult. The evaluations you have provided from participants in CLTL suggests this program is addressing this contradiction as well as any program can, but the contradiction remains, and we are not likely to see them vanish under Obama, even if he is as good a president as we can hope for at this time. The way we are likely to see significant change is if there are movements against militarism and against institutions which sacrifice the welfare of the citizen for the sake of the corporate elite. We saw the beginnings of such movements forty years ago, but the powerful reacted to destroy them. They were so successful that a whole generation grew up with little capacity to envision the possibility of collective action. Passivity and malaise can be seen in the current university student generation as well as the current prison generation. What we need is a way to get this generation to recognize its own power, something not easy to create.

  10. Yale, I have no idea how to end the militarism that has wagged this dog for so many years. Our phase of it began in 1948, when Harry Truman had to decide whether to switch back to a peace-time economy or not. He decided, with the National Security Act, not to. Just before he made that decision, Senator Arthur Vandenberg advised: “Harry, you’re going to have to scare the hell out of ‘em first.” And they’ve been scaring the hell out of us ever since.

    I used to think that the obvious horror and stupidity of war must become so obvious that we’d see the light. How, after the Holocaust, could people continue to dehumanize others? How, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could we continue to employ such brutal weapons? How, after Vietnam, could we let people like Kennedy’s Harvard gang make up abstract reasons for stupid wars?

    But we go merrily on. Now that I’m an old man, and know that my power to change the big picture is very slight, I settle for much smaller ambitions. Year after year, the new empowerment I see in our students as a result of the program makes me feel that in the small area that I can influence, progress is being made. But that doesn’t override my knowledge that, however our men may change, the world of violence, poverty and unemployment they return to is just the same.

    In Buddhism we say what is called an “aspiration prayer,” and it’s said as a kind of call and refrain. It goes, “May we be happy,” “May all beings be happy;” “May we be peaceful,” “may all beings be peaceful;” “May we be free from suffering,” “May all beings be free from suffering.” One could say it doesn’t make any sense, since none of these please is likely to be fulfilled. Still, we aspire.

    I don’t mean to be too quietistic about it. I guess we all do as much as we can, in the spheres where we have any influence, to move the world in the direction the aspiration prayer points to. That’s why I love CLTL. It lets me feel that I’m doing it.

  11. Pingback: CLTL Juvenile Programs: What They’re Up Against « Changing Lives, Changing Minds

  12. I want to comment on a few of Yale’s All Quiet On the Prison Front CLTL remarks , including the question ” is this a society to which you should adjust?. The rehabilitated are urged to adjust and conform to a militaristic, authoritarian “empire conceived in slavery and genecide.” I agree that “rulers who want cannon fodder do not want an educational system makeing all students independent creative thinkers.”
    Also, I think we do not want to encourage liberals these days, since liberals encourage people to think for themselves. These days,education is designed for conservatives ie. , those who deliver set, pre -packaged ideas , in neat predigisted regimented classroom formats. .
    To put it another way.the economy, education, and the future is off course today as it was in Germany when Hitler took power despite a well trained German populace. TRAINED is not educated .
    Education today has become another kind of training involving competition, insecurity, sucess or failure , just as Lenny Bruce said it in the 1950’s .” When you get your first report card, you enter the capitalist system. The A’s will be rich andsucessful, the D’s will be poor failures.”
    Indeed,we have become an INFORMATION based culture, in love with comuter based quantifiable numbers rather than real KNOWLEDGE
    which involves learning how to take information and process it and analyze it individually before using it or applying it .
    I have been teaching The Beats, Countercultural Literature and Satire for some time and despite pressures placed on me to avoid liberal ideas and start to conform and train, many , not all., students in my classes long to think for themselves despite the new educational , political , cultural , McCarthyism of 2008. .
    Thanks to Yale, Bob and this wonderful blog’

    Joan Kellerman., UMD English Department Dec 21,2008

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