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Kurt Vonnegut's attack on Society Romanticizing War in Slaughterhouse-Five

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For centuries war has been romanticized as a heroic battle between a purely good side and the evil side. Incredible heroes fight against evil and give peace back to the good. The good and innocent all live peacefully afterwards while the evil are punished and forced to take responsibility for the war that they inevitably have caused. This heroic and manly battle of pure evil against pure good is the exact picture that Kurt Vonnegut strives to destroy through his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut seeks to show the reality of war and how damaging the evil verses good image has been on society as it contends humans against each-other. “For Vonnegut the subject matter is not simply Nazi atrocity; it is many other things” (Lundquist 43) such as many people’s obsession with revenge, issues of racism, and most importantly the question of how to tell a true story that is unimaginable to the point of borderline fiction. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five he uses a blend of realism and utopian imagination along with dark humor to deromanticize war.

As a German-American who fought with the allies in World War II, Vonnegut is torn between both sides of war. He recognizes the evil of Nazism and that the war was a necessary feat but cannot stand behind the attack “designed by the Allies to kill as many German civilians as possible” (Allen 95) as well as annihilate the beautiful and historic city of Dresden which held little to no value to the German Military. (Freese 77) War brings out an inhumanity in people that is unfathomable to Vonnegut. He finds it reprehensible that this attack, which seems purposeless for anything but revenge, had been kept almost entirely secret by the government. Vonnegut decided that it was his duty to write about Dresden to expose the truth about the attack and its severity. Still, the pressing issue stands that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24) which makes writing about one all the more difficult.

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To tell his story Vonnegut uses three different characters with varying opinions and perspectives regarding the story of Billy Pilgrim. While Vonnegut makes Pilgrim similar to Vonnegut in his war experiences, he does not exactly represent Vonnegut’s life or perspective. Due to the similarities between him and his protagonist “Vonnegut creates a mask, a narrator who provides a certain distance between” (Schatt 99) Billy and his author. The narrator serves to tell Billy’s story entirely through his own voice which allows Vonnegut to interject a few small comments of his own into the story, proving his views to not be congruent with those of the narrator. By showing himself as an Army scout alongside Billy, Vonnegut “dispel[s] any thought that Billy Pilgrim was an autobiographical rendering of the actual author” (MacFarlane 151). Through using perspectives unlike his own to tell Billy’s story and talk about war, Vonnegut is able to make the reader focus on their own thoughts and opinions rather than his.

The story’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is in some ways the same as and in many other ways totally different from Vonnegut. While Vonnegut seems to have an attitude of wanting change in the world and striving to accomplish his goals, Pilgrim is an extremely passive character which makes him a very odd choice as a protagonist in a war story. The choice to convey Billy as passive and unenthusiastic about life makes him the exact opposite of the typical hero in war stories. This places Billy, as the protagonist, in the place of an anti-hero which gives the book a clear anti-war message (Marvin 124).

While Vonnegut believes in a man’s ability to change his fate, Pilgrim is convinced by his imaginary abduction by aliens called Tralfamadorians that a person’s life is already planned to follow a set course from birth until death. Tralfamadorians believe that life is full of set moments that cannot ever be changed but can be visited at any time at random. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (29) and he believes that he can now time travel to any point in his life whenever he pleases. Pilgrim cannot accept everything about fate like the Tralfamadorians. Although they tell him to focus on the good moments in life and not the bad ones, Billy still cannot simply forget and accept that there is nothing he can do for others’ suffering (Schatt 100). Billy’s lack of control over his life is meant to appear ridiculous to the reader and emphasizes Vonnegut’s point that people can control the world around them even in regards to war.

One of the ways that Vonnegut denounces romanticized stories about war is through his comedic depictions of characters that bear similarities to the classic war heroes. The strongest example of this strategy is found in a young soldier named Ronald Weary whom Billy fights alongside in the war. Weary is the exact opposite of Pilgrim in nearly every way. He is an obese boy who “had every piece of equipment he had ever been issued” (50) by the military and more. While Billy spends time daydreaming about his future on Tralfamadore and his life outside of war, Weary spends every second pretending to be some great war hero as if he is preparing the story that he will tell his family when he gets home. Despite the fact that he is actually strongly disliked by the other three men in his small squad he “imagines himself to be one of the three close war comrades who call themselves the ‘Three Musketeers’ ” (Schatt 101).

In reality, Weary is simply a child who tells other men stories, which he creates in his mind, in order to feel as though he is a hero. Vonnegut, Billy, and Weary “had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood” (18) Weary’s stories are his way of coping with a war that he, as a mere child, is unable to comprehend. The kinds of false stories that Weary creates represent the type of stories where veterans will “pretend [they] were men instead of babies” (18). These stories are exactly what Vonnegut promises his friend’s wife Mary O’Hare that he will never write. Weary’s character is Vonnegut’s way of showing what people do not see when they read or hear about men who are glorified as heroes.

Another example of satirical versions of stereotypical war characters are the English prisoners of war whom Pilgrim meets after his capture. These men are the perfect soldiers told about in stories, confident in their troops abilities and pleasing to the eyes of the Germans as “they made war look stylish and reasonable, and fun” (120). Vonnegut then essentially dismisses the romanticized outlook of the Englishmen and the Germans in regards to war by pointing out that “the British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap [the soldiers used] were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists and other enemies of the State” (122). This statement, followed by the narrator’s signature “so it goes” (122), acknowledges that there is no such thing as a war hero and that anybody saying there is does not know about actual war.

Vonnegut’s opinion about people’s abilities to change their fate shows most evidently through a contrast in Billy Pilgrim. Billy struggles with his own life and death as well as his belief that the lives and deaths of those around him are unchangeable. Almost immediately after being drafted into the military Billy has his first experience with death when his father dies in a hunting accident while Billy is at boot camp. Then during the war Billy attempts to get killed several times in battle because he “didn’t really like life at all.” (130) Although Billy does not believe in the ability to change his fate he still attempts to die or at least acts indifferent to dying.

Billy’s deteriorated mental state is evident in his obsession with the question of “why me?” (97) throughout the book. When he is abducted by the Tralfamadorians and he asks why they chose him, they simply say that there is no rhyme or reason for why anything happens. Every “moment simply is” (97) and there is no way to change it. This concept ties the Nazis to the Tralfamadorians later in the book when an American is beat by a German guard for muttering something under his breath. Afterwards the American asks “why me?” (116) and the Guard’s responds is very similar to that of the Tralfamadorians “‘Vy you? Vy Anybody?'”(116). By tying the Tralfamadorians to the Nazis Vonnegut shows that the alien lifestyle that may seem utopian to Billy is not as perfect as it seems.

Billy struggles with surviving many things that he does not want to or believes he should not have. He is awestruck when looking at the moonscape that Dresden is post-bombing and cannot understand why he is lucky enough to live when so many die. He faces this existential confusion again when he contemplates the plane crash that he walks away from as the only survivor.

Despite actually being alive, Vonnegut associates Billy with imagery and symbolism relating to death. Vonnegut describes corpses as having blue and ivory feet which he also uses to describe Billy on two different occasions. He has a weird fascination with death and even spends his wedding night planning his gravestone. Perhaps the best example of the idea of death that seems to follow Billy throughout his life is when it states that Billy’s happiest moment is when he is lying beneath the warm sun, napping on a coffin shaped wagon. Even Billy’s happiest moment ties to death and lying in a coffin. By relating Billy to death Vonnegut emphasizes how a person who possesses no free will and chooses to not control their own life is essentially dead. Ironically, the quote that is supposedly Billy’s “method for keeping going” (76) is a quote about having “wisdom always to tell the difference” (77) between the things that he can and cannot change in his life. This saying holds a dark irony to Billy’s life since “the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future” (77) which is untrue for any living human being, but not for Billy, who might as well be dead. By believing that fate is unchangeable and that he cannot control his life Billy is not actually living at all.

Billy’s struggle against life leads to his imaginary episodes where he recalls being abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians. He imagines being kept in a dome shaped container in a Tralfamadorian zoo with a young porn star named Montana Wildhack. He imagines the two living together in a picturesque life and having a child all before the eyes of the Tralfamadorians. “Billy and Montana appear as a sort of new Adam and Eve, who live in the confines of a perfect world” (Allen 103) and learn about the idea of fate and its resistance to change from the God-like Tralfamadorians.

The idea of time traveling to other moments in his life especially to Tralfamadore is Billy’s way of coping with the stress and pain he feels when remembering the war. By juxtaposing seemingly normal moments from Billy’s life to the dark moments from war Vonnegut pictures for readers how war affects soldiers minds and all of their memories. Veterans have no choice but to find a way to cope with the new state of their minds. Science fiction stories like that of the Tralfamadorians are escapes for Billy and his hospital roommate, Eliot Rosewater, who “were trying to reinvent themselves and their universe” (128). For Billy it is easier for him to escape to another planet in his mind where nothing requires any explanation than to try to understand why people do the evil things they do when their vision is clouded by war.

The novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut provides a clear message of ending the romanticized portrayals of war so often seen in film and writing. Vonnegut does not condemn war as a whole as much as he condemns the way that many people choose to both see it and talk about it. By using the shifts between the blunt realism of war and the idealism of stereotypical characters and a utopian world like Tralfamadore Vonnegut produces a book filled with a dark humor that does not push a particular viewpoint on readers, but instead makes them consider their own feelings and views based on only the facts.

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