Reinforcements have arrived, most of them new recruits who have never seen battle. They are only two years younger than Paul and his former classmates, but they seem like helpless children. In comparison to these hapless “infants,” the experienced soldiers consider themselves to be “stone-age veterans.”
Time passes differently on the front—for the veteran soldiers, two years seems like a lifetime of experience. Paul and his friends have been forced to grow up too quickly; their superior experience, however, is also a source of pride.
When one new soldier complains about the bad army food, Kat teases him and then gives him some beans and beef he has traded another soldier for. He instructs the new recruit to bring him a cigar or tobacco next time in payment. Kat was a cobbler before the war, but he has adapted perfectly to army life. Paul says Kat has a “sixth sense” for locating good food and supplies wherever the Second Company goes. Kat’s friends never go hungry, even when the rest of the Company has to make do on limited rations.
Cobblers mend shoes and other goods, making use of whatever materials are at hand. Kat’s pre-war profession required him to be a creative problem-solver. In the army, that resourcefulness allows him to thrive. Kat is shrewd but he is also generous with those he cares about. He is something of a father figure for Paul and the other younger men, who lack Kat’s practical life experience.
Paul recalls some of Kat’s most spectacular discoveries, marveling at the man’s almost supernatural ability to find food in the most unlikely places. Once, while camping in a poor, impoverished village, Kat managed to obtain two loaves of bread and a bag of horsemeat—an unimaginable feast for the hungry soldiers. Paul describes how Kat had carefully cooked the meat and shared it amongst his friends. Kat’s true “masterpiece,” though, was once bringing back four boxes of lobsters—though Paul admits that the men might have preferred a simple steak.
Kat is a source of wonder to Paul, who views the older man with a combination of awe and affection. Kat makes it seem like there’s more to life than simply surviving: he shows Paul that it’s possible to flourish, to enjoy oneself, and to create family bonds even in the midst of the war’s devastation.
The narrative returns to the present day, where the men are relaxing in the sun after a long morning of drills. They were forced to practice saluting for an hour after their fellow soldier Tjaden failed to salute a superior officer properly. Kat complains that the officers spend too much time enforcing military etiquette and too little time preparing the men to fight. He lets off a fart, expressing both his comfort and his contempt for the officers’ petty concerns.
The saluting incident speaks volumes about German military leadership. The officers are preoccupied with personal rank and power. As a result, they focus on trivial details instead of thinking about the big picture. The idea that authority narrows one’s worldview is a common theme in the novel. Those with the least power (the common soldiers) are often the most in touch with reality.
As the men take bets on an air-fight unfolding above, Kat and Kropp begin to argue about how the war should be fought. Kat believes that if the officers were paid and fed the same amount as the common soldiers, the war would be over in a day. Kropp, on the other hand, says that war should be conducted like a popular festival or bullfight. Instead of sending out vast armies to fight and die for them, the leaders of both countries would enter the arena to participate in single combat. Whoever survived would win the war with a minimum of casualties.
Both Kat and Kropp’s proposals would make those in power accountable for the decision to go to war. Their thinking is that if the great political and military leaders were forced to endure the horrific conditions in the trenches, they’d quickly find a reason to end the war and return to their comfortable lives. Similarly, single combat would bring the war to a fast and relatively bloodless conclusion. Either way, they see their leaders, essentially, as corrupt and power-hungry men willing o sacrifice the commoners in search of even more power.
The men soon drop the subject of war, instead reminiscing about their experiences as new recruits in the training camp. Kropp reminds them of their training corporal Himmelstoss’s favorite drill, which required the men to repeatedly practice how they would change trains at the Lohne railway junction. Though training involved long hours of instruction, physical exercise, and chores, it was paradise compared to the front. Paul says the men “dare not” think back any further, as that would involve discussing their lives before the war.
Though they hated it at the time, now the men see training camp as a kind of pleasant childhood. They fondly remember the mindless drills as part of a simpler, more innocent time, before they knew what was in store for them at the front. Thinking about their real childhoods would bring up dangerous emotions. It’s as if their lives now begin and end with the war—the men can’t, or won’t, imagine a time before they were soldiers.
The air-fight ends when the German airplane is shot down. Kropp, who has lost the bet, grudgingly hands over the last beer to the victorious Kat. Paul is still thinking about Himmelstoss, who was a postman before the war began. When Paul wonders aloud how the man became such a bully, Kat replies that every man is “essentially a beast,” who conceals his true nature with “a little decorum.” As soon as a man gets a little power, however, he inevitably abuses it, and in the process reveals his animalistic character.
For the pilot of the German plane, the outcome of the airfight may be a matter of life and death; for Kat and Kropp, it’s simply a chance to win or lose a beer. Their bet seems callous, but it is ultimately harmless, since they have no actual power over who lives and who dies. The real animals are the generals and other leaders, the men who do have such power, to exercise (and abuse) as they wish.
Suddenly, Tjaden runs up to the men with an announcement: Himmelstoss has been sent to serve on the front. Though none of the men like Himmelstoss, Tjaden has a special grudge against him. During their training, Himmelstoss devised a cruel method for “curing” Tjaden of his chronic bedwetting, which he wrongly believed was pure laziness. He assigned Tjaden to a bunk bed with another bed-wetter named Kindervater, and then forced the men to trade off sleeping in the lower bunk. The plan was a failure, but it instilled in Tjaden a fiery hatred for the corporal.
Himmelstoss’s method failed because it was based on a flawed understanding of Tjaden’s problem. Himmelstoss is not a keen judge of character, and like many of the superior officers in the novel, he seems to be incapable of grasping the bigger picture. He tries to solve everything with force, leading only to pain and humiliation.
Paul recalls how the men had finally gotten back at Himelstoss after weeks of plotting. One night, they snuck up on him as he walked back to the barracks from the pub. Throwing a sheet over his face so he could not identify them, the men proceeded to give Himmelstoss a savage beating with a whip. At one point, Paul remembers, Haie and Tjaden became so brutal the others had to drag them away to get a turn. Himmelstoss trained the men to act ruthlessly; the attack demonstrates that they internalized the message. After hearing the story of their triumph over the corporal, one old veteran described the soldiers as “young heroes.”
The beating illustrates the truth of Kat’s claim that a little power inevitably brings out men’s animalistic instincts. Though Himmelstoss tormented the men for weeks, their premeditated attack seems far more violent than anything he inflicted upon them. In training them for war, Himmelstoss inadvertently gave the soldiers a means of rebelling against his tyrannical rule. The old soldier’s comment recalls the “Iron Youth” title from Kantorek’s letter, but suggests a different, much more cynical view of heroism.