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Paul and the soldiers, worn down, have stopped counting the weeks. The men have lost their original distinctions and have blended in with each other. Paul believes they have done this as a means of self-preservation--from insanity, desertion, and death. They remain hardened and closed off, but occasionally a dangerous "flame of grievous and terrible yearning flares up" and prove to the men that their behavior is "artificial."
Paul's refrain of "Summer of 1918"--he begins four paragraphs in a row with the phrase--is a good example of how Remarque mixes beauty and horror in his poetic prose. "Summer of 1918" could be used in a very different context--to describe budding love, for instance. In fact, Paul begins the refrain in the manner of a love or nature poem, detailing "the red poppies in the meadows round our billets the stars and the flowing waters, dreams and long sleep--O Life, life, life!" But he quickly turns to talk of trench survivalist tactics--"the blanched faces lie in the dirt and the hands clutch at the one thought: No! No! Not now!"--and to the "tormenting" rumors of a possible armistice.
"We are little flames poorly sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out. "
The metaphor speaks to how fragile their sanity is in war. By now, nearing the end of the war, their psyches are fragile. They are like a small flame in a storm.