Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut (New York: Dell Publishing, 1969. 216 pp)
Kurt Vonnegut was a fourth-generation German-American who lived in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (while smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale. Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace.
The Muzzle of a Gun
Despite the glorification of war on the silver screen, the principle of war is not only brutish and disheartening but also perhaps the most disgusting trait of humanity. Although other animals fight and kill each other on occasion, the speed, efficiency, and scope by which humans kill each other is unparalleled.
For some, war is a necessary evil. To them, when dialogue fails to rehabilitate a group, nothing forces correct behavior like the muzzle of a gun.
For others, no amount of conflict necessitates the taking of another’s life.
Even a war universally justified like World War II has its detractors. Of course, the atrocities of Hitler required a response and no pacifist condones Hitler’s actions. But some people don’t bleed red, white, and blue.
In the bombing of Dresden, Allied forces fire-bombed an entire city indiscriminately. In addition to the many military personnel who perished in the burning city, 25,000 civilians died. Vonnegut, a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time, experienced the calamity first-hand and found its destruction futile in the grand scheme of things. In Palm Sunday, he wrote of his book, Slaughterhouse-Five,
“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in” (302).
With Slaughterhouse-Five – perhaps his most famous work – Vonnegut retells the story of the Dresden fire-bombing through a nonlinear narrative, an exploration of fate vs. free will, and a darkly satirical voice.
The novel follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a Chaplain’s Assistant in the war and an optometrist in his later years, as he time travels between his experience on the front, his life post-war, and his time spent on Tralfamadore, the home world of the alien race who abducted him.
Time: An Exploration of Fate vs. Free Will
These aliens view time much differently from humans. While humanity understands time in one direction, the Tralfamadorians view all moments in time simultaneously.
Influenced by his abductors, Billy Pilgrim jumps between eras in his life inadvertently. His perception of circumstances is exceptionally fatalistic. When it comes to death, Pilgrim glibly exclaims, “So it goes.” He knows that death is only one moment among many simultaneously occurring circumstances.
Vonnegut’s dark view of human nature expands when he pens,
“’If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,’ said the Tralfamadorian, ‘I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by “free will.” I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will’” (86).
A Satirical Voice, Darkly
On top of these philosophical notions, Vonnegut writes beautifully. His inventive prose is entertaining, evocative, and creative. Discussing a moment when Billy perceives time in reverse, Vonnegut writes,
“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewman. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city and that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.
The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed” (75).
The Futility of War
Despite the prose jumping from decade to decade and from earth to a distant planet in the universe, Vonnegut ultimately centers the story on the fateful bombing of Dresden. Instead of glorifying war and creating charismatic heroes, Vonnegut considers these deeds futile. Concerning one of Billy Pilgrim’s fellow soldiers, Vonnegut asserts,
“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters (164).
Whether or not a just war is possible, the actual performance on the frontlines of battle is a heartbreaking part of the human condition. Is it possible for humanity to stop war amongst its constituents? Are we capable of change? Will time even present a conclusion? Vonnegut believes that a dance with death is necessary for great art. He danced in the fires of Dresden and Slaughterhouse-Five was the result. Just as many find hope in an excellent war story, others flourish with a well-told anti-war novel. Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliantly written book. If you have yet to read it, please do so.