Paul thinks about how, as a student, he had aspired to become a writer. Now, however, those dreams seem incomprehensible to him. Unlike the older soldiers, who left behind families and jobs, Paul and his friends went to war before their lives had really begun. When the war ends, they will have nothing to return to.
The war has not just threatened and destroyed the lives of the young soldiers, it has also destroyed their dreams. It has made them foreign to themselves. Paul no longer feels a connection to his past, and is equally unable to imagine a peaceful future.
Paul recalls his first experiences of army life as a young recruit. He and his former classmates Kropp, Müller, and Kemmerich trained under the command of Corporal Himmelstoss, who forced them to do humiliating chores and endure rough punishments. Though the soldiers hated Himmelstoss and eventually began to figure out ways to act out against him, Paul says that the corporal’s strictness trained them to be “suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough”—qualities that are essential to survival in the trenches.
Himmelstoss trained the men in ways that helped them survive the war, but he did not train them to become the sorts of valorous warriors they initially expected to become. He made them "suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough"—words that better describe animals than romantic heroes. Romantic heroes wouldn't survive in the trenches of WWI.
Paul goes to visit the dying Kemmerich alone in the hospital again the next day. Paul’s war experiences have mostly numbed him to human suffering, but he is unprepared for the pain and grief he feels as he sits by his friend’s bedside. Paul tries to conceal his distress by assuring his friend that now Kemmerich will be sent back to their home village to recover. But his friend simply tells Paul to give his precious boots to Müller, indicating that Kemmerich has realized the truth about his condition.
On the battlefield Paul is able to desensitize himself to the pain of others, but in the more civilized realm of the hospital, he realizes that he isn’t yet as numb to the horrors of war as he’d like to believe. Talking about home proves to be more painful than comforting for both men, as it reminds them of a past they can never return to.
After a long and painful struggle, Kemmerich finally dies. Though Paul feels a surge of intense grief, there is no time to properly mourn for his friend. The orderlies must immediately remove the dead body to make room for another soldier. In a daze, Paul collects Kemmerich’s few possessions and leaves the hospital.
Kemmerich’s death throws Paul off-kilter, but for the more experienced hospital orderlies it’s business as usual. It's almost like the war is a kind of unstoppable machine, churning out death.
As Paul heads back to his hut, he finds himself walking faster and faster until he suddenly breaks into a sprint. As he runs through the camp, hardly aware of his surroundings, Paul forces himself to stop thinking about Kemmerich. Instead, he focuses on his breathing and his beating heart, reminding himself that his own body is still strong, healthy, and alive.
Running allows, and forces, Paul to concentrate on his physical reactions, helping him shut out his thoughts and emotions about Kemmerich's death. By running, Paul is purposely reducing himself into an animal, a body.
When Paul reaches the hut, his friend Müller is waiting outside for him. Paul doesn’t say anything about watching Kemmerich die. He simply hands the boots over to Müller without speaking, and they go inside to try them on.
Once again, the men avoid expressing strong emotional responses. Instead of dwelling on Kemmerich’s death, they concern themselves with practicalities—whether the boots fit.