Thursday, August 4, 2011

Air War, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five


Dick Bennett

I.  Context and Meaning in Literature

    Of the many relationships between literature and history, imagination and fact (and I will explain later what I mean by “fact” ), I will be discussing the way history can function normatively in literature.  The veridical adequacy of a piece of literature affects its moral adequacy.  For example, in Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel about the Vietnam War, In Country, the leading characters visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Samantha seeks to learn more about her father killed in the war.  She has a strongly critical outlook, the war was “such a waste.”  To her  “both the monument and the flag seem like arrogant gestures, like the country giving the finger to the dead boys.”  This climactic insight seems complete and  definitive both as a moral assessment of her country and of the  war. But it falls far short.
       An enormous historical omission mars the novel, an absence observed by none of the characters and apparently also not by the author.   The bombing of Vietnam was unimaginably atrocious.  I’ll cite 2 pieces from the much larger destruction.  During the Nixon/Kissinger administration alone (from 1969 to 1973), the US dropped four million tons of bombs (the equivalent of over 250 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs) at a cost of $50 billion.  The secret Christmas 1972 bombing of North Vietnam was “the most destructive single episode of international violence in recent history.  The novel is oblivious of these horrors.
    Sam, as she is called, perceives the 58,000 US soldiers as victims, but she cannot stand outside her national cocoon and see the enemy dead.  The Vietnam Memorial “bears the names of so many who died,” she says, but she is wrong; she does not know enough and therefore cannot feel or care enough (or is it the other way around?) to break through the confinement of national myth and perception in order to imagine herself in Vietnam with the spirits (as the Vietnamese believe) of the three million men, women, and children killed because of the ten-year war.  And she knows or feels nothing about the dead Allied soldiers—Korean, Australian, Filipino, and others.  Samantha—and I believe Bobbie Ann Mason too—have seen through the glorification of killing taught in infantry boot camp and by the national leaders of wars, but their caring is for their own nation’s victims alone, their own tribe, their own family.  Sam accepts a Vietnam veteran’s breakthrough description of the Washington Monument as “a big white prick” of a nation that “goes around fucking the world.”  But her empathy as well as her critical thinking are still drastically limited, and we must judge the novel by that limitation.  Had Mason waited a few years and learned more about the mass slaughter of Vietnamese and the devastation of the country that continues today;  had she known what the Okinawans express in their  monument to the 200,000 killed in the WWII Battle of Okinawa, entitled “The Cornerstone of Peace,” which etches in granite the names not only  of all of the combatants on both sides, including the British, but also all of the civilians, including the Korean slave laborers; her critique of the Vietnam War  would have been more profound..
III.  Historical Context: Air Wars
    The full reality of the Vietnam War as a basis for evaluating the imaginative achievement of In Country, has its counterpart in Vonnegut’s evaluation of the destruction of Dresden during WWII.  Like In Country,  Slaughterhouse Five is about war, and specifically air war.
    In the 1930s, President Roosevelt denounced the bombing of cities as “barbarous” violations of international law and modern morality.  But by the beginning of WWII he followed Hitler and Churchill in accepting aerial warfare.  The British RAF bombing of Hamburg in 1943 ignited the war’s first horrendous firestorm, the air heated to 1500 degrees to bake, melt, explode, and asphyxiate 40,000 men, women, and children.  The British aim was to kill as many Germans as possible.  Eventually the US joined Britain in indiscriminate mass incendiary bombings of cities.  Darmstadt in 1944; Berlin in 1945.  The climax came at Dresden in Feb. 1945, a city clotted with refugees fleeing the Soviet armies. The city was only marginally a military target; rather, it was German’s cultural capital.  US and British assaults created a firestorm visible to bomber crews 200 miles away. Some 30,000 people died in the bombing.
    By the end of WWII in Europe, despite reluctance on the part of some US leaders,  US bombing of Germany had claimed between 800,000 and a million German lives., mainly noncombatant men, women, and children.  This mass killing of civilians was devoid of ethical justification.  In the Pacific war against the Japanese, even less moral restraint permitted counter-city warfare from the beginning, in a clearly racist war.  The climax in that war was Tokyo, March 1945, when General LeMay burned up 100,000people in 1800 degrees F. and a million people were wounded or made homeless.  One historian of US air war calls these bombings the “triumph of technological fanaticism.”  Another historian labeled the saturation bombing of civilian targets the “unconditional moral surrender to Hitler.”    The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 was merely the inevitable next step for  US now standardless leaders.  And the even worse bombings of Vietnam.

IV.              Slaughterhouse 5

    Vonnegut knew all of this when he wrote Slaughterhouse 5 in 1968, which is why, I believe, he centered his novel on the slaughterhouse in Dresden and thereby on the victims of both sides in the conflict.  A similar novel might be written about the US POWs in Hiroshima, except that they  were all killed.  Dresden had POW survivors, of whom Vonnegut was one.  His story gives us three perspectives for the destruction of Dresden—that of the victims, the US POWs Billy Pilgrim and others, and the German dead and survivors of the bombings; the third perspective is that of the bombers. 
    The bombers from the sky are the new mass distance killers who never see their victims.  In interviews of combat pilots from the Vietnam War,  the pilots struggled to live with and integrate the complex experiences of excitement, self-affirmation, masculinity, fear involved in mass killing of noncombatants and the destruction of their civiliation.  Their defensive distortions permitted them to cope and perform.  Especially, they defended their masculine and moral identity by linguistically codifying their concept of  “warrior” in high-technology air warfare. 
    The same discourse mechanisms permitting dehumanization and denial characterized Gulf War pilots.  One marine pilot described his experiences of dropping 3000 pounds of cluster bombs (i.e. hideous shrapnel) on an Iraqi target:  “You’re coming down the pike, hauling the mail…and you’re staring at that bad boy, and you roll in and hit the pickle and get outta Dodge.”  We are all familiar with the softening anthropomorphizing of horrendously destructive weapons (“walleye” was the nickname for guided air-to-surface bombs), the deceptive condensation of destructive plans or acts into acronyms, and the language games which suppress realities of violence—“collateral damage,” “incontinent ordinance” (bombs which hit civilians), “area denial weapons” (cluster bombs) and enable the killers to continue to perform guilt free.  These mechanisms have grown with the mass killing of air war.  Man becomes machine for distant extermination.
    Vonnegut represents these men/machine pilots as robots who drop burning jellied gasoline on human beings.  “Robots did the dropping.  They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.”  But Vonnegut’s satire extends to all of us who have accepted the bombings.  The “leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls.  And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people.  But they found his halitosis unforgivable.  But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race” (144).  In such ways the populace complicit in the mass killings like the pilots evade and deny them.
       The novel is composed of many fragments of refusals to see or imagine the consequences of air war:  President Truman’s rationalizations for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, (“The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East….We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city….”);  General Eaker’s attack David Irving’s book, The Destruction of Dresden (“I find it difficult to understand Englishmen or Americans who weep about enemy civilians who were killed but who have not shed a tear for our gallant crews lost in combat….”); suppression of information about the bombing itself in the Official History of the Army Air Force in World War Two, a secret from the people of the US, “For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts…might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do.” (165).
      Such is the subject of the main plot of Billy Pilgrim, POW survivor of the Dresden bombings.  Billy’s entire life is screwed up by trying to evade what was done to Dresden by his own country.  But not only that: he is also trying to cope with the violence of the nation and world after the war—the genocidal war against the Native Americans (Wild Bill Cody), violence on television, the assassinations of Kennedy and King (182), the corpse count in Vietnam, world overpopulation and starvation (184).  At the end, he is totally insane.   In WWI shell shock was the handy label; after the Vietnam War it was called post-traumatic syndrome.
    He suppresses his feelings until he likes his wife most for her pancakes.  He becomes a baby again in memory (73).  He buys a Magic Fingers bed (53).  He understands the Serenity Prayer as advocating conscienceless passivity.
    Above all, he fantasizes about an extraterrestial world he had read about in a novel.  Called Tralfamadore, it offers him a complete escape from the violence on earth.  In Tralfamadore there is no reason or explanation for events, no why, everything happens exactly as it has to happen.  In a determined world, concern, anxiety, or protest are useless.  Since changing the conditions of the world is impossible, acceptance and passivity are our only alternativess.  Serene, conscienceless passivity.  “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.”  To borrow from another novel by Vonnegut, everybody is a player piano. 
But this is only one part of the attraction of Tralfamadore to Billy.  Up there always waiting for him in bed is Montana Wildhack, whose photo he had seen in a porn shop.      
Thus does Billy Pilgrim try to cope with the trauma of Dresden, Feb. 1945.  But to no avail, for by the end of the novel Billy has slipped into total delusion.
Tralfalmadore is frequently refuted in the novel.  Moral distinctions do exist.  There is a difference between exploding and burning 30,000 people and halitosis, between the accidental death of an elevator operator and the Jewish Holocaust (8-9), between Lucretia A. Mott and British Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby, K.C.B., between the Billy Pilgrim and his son Robert, Green Beret hero, “leader of men” (163-4), between the death of the character Derby by firing squad for petty theft and Sodom and Gomorrah (Jehovah’s Dresden), between the death of Billy’s father (10) and Dresden.  The novel exposes us to moral contrasts of all kinds, and we are invited to discriminate, to judge their relative value.  Dresden was not inevitable, as Billy tries to believe with his Tralfamadorean fantasy become delusion.  No, Dresden was ordered by known individuals whose values and thinking can and should be evaluated, who chose mass slaughter.   
Near the beginning of the novel, the novelist character  declares the four principles for a moral life that he told his sons:  1) “…they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres” 2) “the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee,” 3) they are “not to work for companies which make massacre machinery” (the US military-industrial complex), and 4) they are to “express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that” (17).
     In contrast to Mason’s  In Country, and in fellowship with Thomas Hardy, who recommended looking at the worst as a foundation for ethics, Vonnegut examines his own country’s record in warmaking and protests its massacres.  We have a propensity to find evil in other nations, while the US shines in moral splendor—the evil Germans, Japanese, Soviets, Libyans, Koreans, Cubans, Guatemalans, Panamanians and two dozen other countries we have invaded and bombed illegally since 1945.  But Vonnegut places himself in Dresden as Billy Pilgrim and with the Germans experiences the United States’ bombings, and afterwards he smells the “mustard gas and roses” of rotted and liquefied corpses, and goes insane.


IV.              Rhetorical Purpose of Vonnegut’s Novels

     In the context of air wars and other U. S. depradations, what are the central themes in the novels leading up to Slaughterhouse 5? 

In Player Piano (1952) a dictatorship of technocratic managers rules over the unnecessary people, who wish to overthrow the system.  The hero, Paul Proteus, one of the managers, but who recognizes he is both agent and victim, wishes to cultivate his own garden with allegiance to neither side, since both seek control over others, but that is impossible.
     Sirens of Titan (1959) is also about control and struggle for individual freedom, this time in an interplanetary dimension where everything seems planned by someone farther away in a system of apparent total cosmic control in which no final truth is ascertainable.  The only thing one can do is cause less pain and “love whoever is around to be loved.”
     In Mother Night (1961) a U.S. double-agent in Germany during WWII, Howard Campbell, broadcasts pro-Nazi messages while in code conveying vital information to the Allies.  Many characters have split lives, surface and secret, which help them cope with a world in which communication is untrustworthy.
     Following novels about a future civil war, cosmic conflicts, and WWII, Cat’s Cradle (1963) tells about the inventor of the atom bomb, Felix Hoeniker, and his new device to destroy the world,  called “ice-nine,” by freezing everything.  The religion in the novel, Bokonism, teaches that pre-existent patterns direct all life, but they are shrouded in mystery.  In fact, Bokonism is completely fiction, invented by two men to distract mankind from realities.
      God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, philanthropist, who seeks to create a loving world in Entropyville, U.S.A., especially for the pathetic members of society abandoned by the ruthless competitors.  Like Jesus, he would have us love the unlovable and unlovely.  His wife rejects her husband’s dream of utopia and bounces to the opposite life of indifference to troubles of the world.  He suffers mental breakdowns, the last one triggered by his hallucination of Indianapolis in the grip of a firestorm like the one which destroyed Dresden.
Many of the themes found in Slaughterhouse 5 are prepared for in the earlier novels.  The technocratic managers of PP become technowar and robot pilots in S5.  The deterministic philosophy  to evade responsibility in SoT and CC becomes Billy Pilgrim’s escapist Tralfamadorean “So it goes” and extraterrestial Tralfamadore fantasy of  bedding with Montana Wildhack.  The ruthless competitive world and firestorm engulfing Indianapolis become World War II air war and the burning of Dresden.  The insanity of Elliott Rosewater caused by the horrors of the world becomes the delusions of Billy Pilgrim.

Rhetoric of Slaughterhouse Five

     How convey the horror of Dresden and convince readers to oppose the indiscriminate bombing of cities?   Vonnegut was actually in Slaughterhouse Five during the bombing and resulting firestorm, and he has said he was sure the Dresden air-raid would be the subject of his first novel.  But he discovered the subject of a mass massacre was too much for him.  Perhaps his fictional novelist in the novel speaks for Vonnegut:  He “thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen” (2).  But the question was, how report it?   And anyway, “how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been” (2).  So Vonnegut wrote five other novels before Slaughterhouse Five, all preoccupied, some more, some less, with issues of moral choice and responsibility in, or evasion and escape from, a ruthless, technocratic world,  often leading to or away from dreadful violence.
      This subject becomes the center of Slaughterhouse 5.  How enable readers to be affected by mass death, to smell corpses, “mustard gas and roses”?  How help readers choose or reject slaughter?  How stop people from believing in war, in believing in the inevitability of war?  One character compares wars to glaciers, always coming (3).  How change that conviction?  How enable people to imagine and feel what it is like to be bombed with jellied gasoline?  How induce people to make moral evaluations of pilots who, like robots, cannot imagine what was happening to the burning people (144)?   How teach people to truly focus their attention on, be repelled by, and actively oppose atrocities, with the moral energy ordinarily expended on correcting halitosis (144)?
      All during the 1950s and 1960s Vonnegut was trying to write his Dresden war novel. And how did it turn out?
Most obviously, he drastically jumbled the narrative.  Why?  Several explanations are possible.  Because it is a novel about a novelist who is trying to write about something so horrifying that conventional narrative form was inappropriate.  Because it is a novel about a novelist who is so consumed with the memory of the air-raid, so unable to erase the memory, that it constantly captures and disrupts the story.  Because apparently the conventional accounts of the brutal atrociousness of war had failed to enter the consciousness of the majority of people, as air war atom bombs, incendiary and fragmentary bombs, and chemical war/Agent Orange demonstrated.
The profound belief in war originates in the brain, perhaps.  The evolution of the brain has produced an efficient machine for survival, in its drive for wholeness, cohesion, consistency, control, and safety (Lester).  Beliefs and belief systems are part of this survival, which explains why they are often so resistant to change.  Challenges to any belief threaten the brain’s organization for survival.  This explains partly why evidence of the failure of wars to solve problems has made so little headway against the long history of the brain’s reliance on wars.  Beliefs which justify murder and genocide don’t themselves die easily.
And the beliefs are constantly reinforced by societies.  Until just a few years ago, the state of Arkansas had no memorials to nonviolent peacemaking or peacemakers, while everywhere were monuments to wars, that is, to war: statues to warriors, fighter aircraft and howitzers , battlefields, and cemeteries to dead combatants.  And repeatedly every year we celebrate war veterans and wars, while air shows, recruiting offices, and veterans’ organizations of all ranks pump up patriotism.
Vonnegut must break through these formations of militarism, and most of all the belief in the goodness of US warmaking and warriors, because fearful people believe war is inevitable.
“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy Pilgrim, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.  “I know,” said Billy.  (171)
 So from the beginning, the narrative is fractured into bits and pieces, calling into question traditional narratives and the ideologies which produce them, with their beginning-middle-and ends dear to story-tellers of the past, to tribal or nationalistic leaders, and perhaps even to the brain itself, properly conditioned.  The novel as history, revisiting Dresden with old war buddy, writing the book about Dresden (outlined by lines drawn with his daughter’s crayons), limericks, anti-war books, prisoner exchanges after WWII, return to the U. S., marriage, Yon Yonson again.
 And then, so unexpectedly and so elliptically that you might miss its significance,   not until the end will you fully understand its import, the novelist establishes his bedrock values.   The Department of Anthropology at U of Chicago taught “that there was absolutely no difference between anybody,” and “that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting” (7).   The novel teaches otherwise.  The bombing of Dresden forces us to make distinctions, but dozens of other cases—the characters of Paul Lazzaro and Roland Weary, for example—similarly insist upon moral differences.  The novel is saturated with deaths,  and we are invited to examine them and make distinctions.


Bennett, James R.  “’Beware Men Untouched…’ Air Wars in the 20th Century.”  Peacework (November 2000) 4-6. 
Ginger, Ann Fagan, ed.  Nuclear Weapons Are Illegal: The Historic Opinion of the
World Court
and How It Will Be Enforced
.  New York: Apex Press, Council on International and Public Affairs, 1998.
Lester, Gregory.  “Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die.”  Skeptical Inquirer 24.6 (Nov.-Dec. 2000) 40-43.
Rosenberg, Stanley.  “The Threshold of Thrill: Life Stories in the Skies Over Southeast Asia.”  Gendering War Talk, ed. Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacot (Princeton UP, 1993) 43-64.
Tanner, Tony.  “The Uncertain Messenger: A Study of the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut.”   Critical Quarterly 11.4 (Winter 1969) 297-315.
Vonnegut, Kurt.  Slaughterhouse Five; or, The Children’s Crusade.  New York: Dell, 1969.

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