Join me for a moment of getting-unstuck-in-time, won’t you?
That was Kurt Vonnegut, reading one of the weirdest and loveliest passages in all of his work: Billy Pilgrim’s time-slip in Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy is waiting for the flying saucer to take him to Tralfamadore, and a late-night war movie on TV joggles his own traumatic memories of having been a soldier in that same god-awful carnage. Since it’s all too terrible for a mentally fragile man to bear, Billy’s mental illness — or strange talent — makes the movie run backwards, so that death and destruction get reversed and undone.
Billy Pilgrim is like Vonnegut himself, who also fought in World War II, and in that same novel, Vonnegut talks about his own experiences as a prisoner of war in the basement of a German slaughterhouse during the Allied firebombing of Dresden:
He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.
So it goes.
Sorry, that was Billy Pilgrim again. Or rather, Billy Pilgrim as fictional surrogate for Vonnegut himself. Substitute “he” for “I”, and you get just how non-fictional the novel is. How ironic is that — a novel which is actually non-fiction at heart?
The whole thing is layer upon layer of irony, since Vonnegut is himself of German descent. His surname is actually a bastardization of Funnegut, since his family had an estate — ein Gut — on the river Funne, way back. Since the ignorant Yanks, who haven’t even mastered their own language, would only pronounce it “Funnyguts”, or something dumb like that, it got changed to Vonnegut when they immigrated. So there’s one irony: a German-American sitting among Americans taken prisoner by Germans. Other layers: They are forced to work in a slaughterhouse, making vitamin syrup for pregnant women. This saves their lives when their own allies come to bomb the city, which has no military significance. They firebomb it just as a pure show of force, to say “this is what we’ll do again, and worse, if you don’t surrender”. The prisoners are locked in the basement meat-locker of the slaughterhouse, while the “free” Germans overhead are getting fried up like so much human Schnitzel. They are among the very few to survive the firebombing of Dresden, whose main industry was fine porcelain (insert bull/china-shop joke here). They have the privilege of sitting in terror and darkness, with puffs of plaster dust raining down on their heads, listening to death as it happens.
An experience like that is bound to be scarifying, and for Vonnegut it was. Slaughterhouse-Five alone took him 25 years to be able to write, and when he did, it had to be executed as a slapstick sci-fi comedy; to write it as a straight-up memoir was impossible because the pain was too deep to fathom. About a decade after Slaughterhouse-Five was published, Vonnegut attempted suicide; the unsuccessful attempt formed the basis of another novel, Deadeye Dick.
There isn’t much doubt in my mind that Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim and the soldiers of the Vietnam war, was suffering from PTSD. Back in World War II it wasn’t called that, but “combat fatigue”, as if it were just something you had to sleep off, like an alcohol bender. In the Great War, it was called “shell shock”, as though it were some momentary annoyance you could shake off and be right as rain in five minutes. Military hospitals looked in vain for ways to make just that happen, to make soldiers mentally whole again so they could get briskly back to the business of killing and being killed.
They never found it. And they never will, although I wouldn’t doubt that they’re still trying. As long as there are fortunes somewhere to be plundered, there will be more wars.
And that may be why Slaughterhouse-Five came out when it did. Vonnegut makes no bones about it being an anti-war novel. A contemporary (“Harrison Starr, the movie-maker”) told him he might as well write an anti-glacier novel. Of course, that contention rests on the fallacy that wars, like glaciers, are just natural phenomena, and therefore pointless to oppose. Which begs the question: What is so fucking natural about THIS?
Black flak and nightmare fighters don’t exist in nature, and neither does the purpose they purport to serve. By the way, Randall Jarrell, the war veteran who wrote and read the anti-war poem above, also attempted suicide decades later…and succeeded.
And if we go on glorifying war, which is to say erasing and forgetting the very real human toll of it in favor of lip service to its veterans, we might as well just tell them all to go fucking die.