Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thoughts on "Slaughterhouse-Five"

Or the Children's Crusade
by Kurt Vonnegut

My Rating:

This year I promised myself I'd finally start reading Kurt Vonnegut. (Yes, I've never read Vonnegut before and it is definitely clear that this has been a huge oversight.) This book is the epitome of dark humor. It is a anti-war book, I think, not on purpose, but by nature. It is about a man loosing his mind many years after witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the days of February 13 - 15, 1945.

Billy Pilgrim is the main character of the book. (It is interesting to note the use of a little boy's name, hence, The Children's Crusade). He is depicted as a clown who finds himself a prisoner of war in Germany. Or, rather, he is a child caught up in circumstances he barely understands. He is sent to a POW camp in Dresden. He and a few other POWs are in the basement slaughter house #5 when the bombing occurs. It is described as a firestorm that burns the whole city and it's inhabitants to the ground turning Dresden into the "surface of the moon."

Vonnegut uses time travel and science fiction to deal with the hard facts of the story. The main character travels back and forth in time with the aid of aliens, Tralfamadorians. It is his way of dealing with death. So it goes. It is an utterly absurd plot devise that, in the hands of a lesser human, could be perceived as trivializing these important historical events. Instead the insanity of the aliens makes the insanity of the war palatable. Vonnegut had the uncanny ability to create humor at the most horrible times. It's like having a nervous breakdown — the mind can only handle this kind of massive destruction and death by cracking a little, maybe laughing at inappropriate times.

What happened in Dresden is not taught here in the US. Our educational system, in its infinite wisdom, chooses to write the message of WWII as: the Germans did everything wrong, the US were the heroes, and the British were steadfast and brave. The message from this book is that war is hell. All sides have and will do awful, awful things that will haunt both victim and victor long after the act is done.

What happened in Dresden, and our lack of learning the lessons from it, is all around us today. We should have a holy fear of war. The fear of it should haunt every foreign policy decision we make. I think the problem is that what happened at Dresden is not taught and our children grow up seeing the glory of war and not the horror of it. "Slaughterhouse-Five" is a classic that should be read and re-read by school children, politicians, and every proponent of war.


naysue said...

Have you read or will you read Breakfast of Champions?

Post a Comment