Michael Hiser on “Slaughterhouse-Five”

The following post was sent in by Books Blog contributor Michael Hiser, no doubt celebrating the year of Vonnegut:

slaughterhousefive.jpg(This is the original book cover of the novel.)
It shames me to admit that I had not read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 -– or any of his other books –- until one week ago. That’s about 36 years too late. For someone who was 15 in 1970 when the book came out, and who has always most enjoyed a bleak-comic-absurdist brand of humor, this is an admission of some magnitude.

Fortunately, the place at the table for bleak-comic-absurdist brand of humor has never seemed more secure, especially since March of 2003. Maybe I was just lucky: while other people have had to look elsewhere for intellectual relief after these interesting 37 years — after Vietnam, Watergate, Ronald Reagan, the fall of the Wall, Monica, and the continuing tragic unfolding of W’s Mindless War of Hubris -– I, for the first time, got to read Vonnegut.

It’s the story of the life of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from Ilium, New York. We dip into Pilgrims life at different stages, chronologically. Pilgrim involuntarily time travels, or as Vonnegut writes in opening the book, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”. Pilgrim never knows when he is going to walk from one scene to another, say, when he’s a prisoner of war of the Germans in Dresden in early 1945, to the next when he’s getting married, then in a hospital recovering from an airplane crash, and thence even to another planet, Tralfamadore. He’s kept there, fairly happily, in a zoo. Mainly, though, we get his ground zero e view of living through the Dresden fire bombing of Feb. 1945.

What does the book tell the first time reader who should have read it when Nixon was still scheming to hide the tapes? First, it’s funny. And it’s sad. And it’s absurdist, with it’s description of the time travel of Billy Pilgrim, the actions of the aliens, the Tralfmadores, and the literary leavings of the underappreciated novelist Kilgore Trout. It’s got an air of resignation –- signified by the 214 times that the phrase, “So it goes” is intoned, generally connected with events related to death. But it’s almost a cheerful resignation.

I was directed to the book after all this time by my 17 year old son’s urging, and also by m recent reading of “Flyboys”, by James Bradley. “Flyboys” describes the air war in the Pacific in WWII. Bradley describes the evolution of the American war policy that at first strongly condemned the bombing of civilian targets, but by the end of the war, had wholeheartedly embraced it. The May 1945 incendiary attacks on Tokyo lead to the deaths overnight of some 100,000 people in huge firestorms. It was the same tactic used in February 1945 in Dresden, with the same grim effect.

Bradley’s descriptions lay out the facts of these attacks, and he is clear in his criticism of them, especially in noting the hypocrisy adopted by the US to describe the American intent and role. Vonnegut also describes the facts of the attacks, though he lets us come to our own conclusions about the American intent and role. These were events that, in retrospect, seem clear to have been at the intersection of technology gone awry, to the point where man has lost control of it.

This is not a new theme in human endeavors. A consistent analysis in evaluating the military tactics used in the American Civil War has been that the tactics tended to trail the equipment available. [The corollary is the “generals always fight the last war”]. Thus, even as late as July 1863, in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, 12,000 or so massed ranks of Confederates marched across an open field on which they were sitting ducks for rifled shot, artillery, etc. Those tactics of the Napoleonic era did not survive that last gallant effort.

That seems to be similar to where we are now. We have developed weapons to incinerate beautiful cities and centers of culture either over a period of hours [like at Dresden, or Tokyo] or immediately, as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since we had them in our arsenal, we used them. We still have them, and, from the saber rattling toward Iran coming out of Washington, their use is still contemplated . Like our forefathers, we haven’t yet come up with a new military strategy that encompasses the non-use of a military weapon that we’ve created. That next step would be called “peace”. We weren’t there in 1945, or 1968, or 2003, and we’re not there yet. So it goes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s