Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

Like Billy Pilgrim, the hapless protagonist in his great anti-war novel Slaughterhous-Five, Kurt Vonnegut survived “the greatest massacre in European history” (101). Vonnegut and several other American prisoners of war were spared incineration during the Allied firebombing of Dresden because they were quartered in an underground slaughterhouse. When Vonnegut and his compatriots emerged after the night of pyrotechnics, they discovered a moonscapes containing the charred remains of “one hundred and thirty thousand people” (165). In the novel Billy Pilgrim tells actress Montana Wildhack that the “little logs” he saw “lying around” Dresden after the attack were actually “people who had been caught in the fire storm” (179).

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel about time, space, fate, extraterrestrial creatures, irony, violence, verisimilitude, greed, revenge, and grace. But mostly it’s about war, “the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don’t want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more” (106).

War is always failure: A failure of imagination; a failure of compassion; a failure of communication; a failure of restraint. Kurt Vonnegut is repulsed when Americans celibrate the ugliest and stupidest thing human beings do by having parades and singing songs like “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” He suggests a more fitting tribute:

“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns” (Cat’s Cradle).

Americans emerged from World War II with a hard-won sense of pride that our soldiers and citizens had endured many hardships in order to destroy great evil. This is true, of course, but life is never this simple. There is always much bad accompanying even the greatest good. For example, the defeat of Nazism would not have been possible without the immeasurable sacrifice of the people of the Soviet Union. So in order to destroy Hitler, America had to support Stalin’s equally putrid regime, which would continue to enslave much of the world for decades. We also found it necessary to incinerate hundreds of thousand of civilians in Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima (not a complete list).

Determining the rightness of actions which caused so much death, suffering and despair is beyond the capabilities of any human, so I cannot say with certainty that WWII had to be fought. However, Kurt Vonnegut is willing to concede that America’s role in WWII was necessary, although it left us with some unfortunate legacies:

One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war. It’s been possible for politicians and movie-makers to encourage us we’re always good guys. The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of.

The “success” of the raid on Dresden is largely omitted from the official narrative of WWII (191). Even today, Americans are smugly self-congratulatory when we speak about WWII, as if the entire world should be perpetually thanking us. But as Vonnegut notes, it’s never right to feel good about war.

“I myself have seen the bodies of schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower by my own countrymen, who were proud of fighting pure evil at the time” (116).

So what can we learn from a book about the ugliest and stupidest things that human beings do? Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t offer any easy answers. Slaughterhouse-Five “is short and jumbled and jangled” in content and narrative “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (19).

The greatest wisdom in Slaughterhouse-Five is offered by the Tralfamadorians, a race of extraterrestrial beings who abduct Billy Pilgrim in order to study earthlings. The Tralfamadorians, who function in four dimensions, are able to see a person’s entire life span at once. From this perspective

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber (86).

Slaughterhouse-Five is not the feel good Oprah Book of the Month. There is no Secret, and this is all the advice you get:

“one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” (117).

When Kurt Vonnegut was writing Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie producer Harrison Starr that he was working on an anti-war novel:

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr asked (3).

Vonnegut agreed with Starr on the futility of his project: “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too” (3).

Since that time (1968), however, humanity has made considerable progress in the War on Glaciers. This thought might have aroused a chuckle from Vonnegut, but I doubt it would have heartened him much.

One final thought from Robert Browning

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky,
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force–
Gold, of course.
Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

by Richard W. Bray

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3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five”

  1. Vonnegut On War: Give Me Knowledge « roger hollander Says:

    […] A nicely Tralfamadorian response to a decision by the Republic, Mo. school board to ban Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut’s trippy anti-war classic about the fire-bombing of Dresden, from its high school: the Vonnegut Memorial Library will offer a free copy to 150 students. The book was deliberately “jumbled and jangled,” he once said, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” […]

  2. The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr quipped. […]

  3. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five […]

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