Slaughterhouse Five is one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novels. It has some good arguments advocating for pacificism, and, in general, how most wars are unjustified.
An Overview of the Book
In Kurt Vonnegut’s loosely autobiographical and highly influential novel, Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut follows the story of an American soldier, Billy Pilgrim, during World War 2. This character often follows stories from Vonnegut’s own experience as a soldier at that same time. Vonnegut was a German-American soldier fighting against the Axis in Germany during World War 2, which is an interesting situation. There was far less anti-German ethnicity discrimination than anti-Oriental and anti-Japanese discrimination present (internment camps being the most quantifiable measure), even though the United States was engaged in a war against countries which had nearly exclusively these races. And like Billy, Vonnegut did survive the bombing of Dresden in a similar (if not identical) way that appears in Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut was obviously anti-war, but realized they were inevitable:
Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death. (Vonnegut 25)
So, Vonnegut realizes that while wars are inevitable, they are still pointless killings.
Connections to Vietnam
Slaughterhouse Five was released during the USA’s involvement in Vietnam, which was justified through arguably unreasonable grounds, although Vonnegut sees all other wars as being unreasonable as well.
A Case Example of a Clueless Supporter
For example, Vonnegut’s obviously ironic tone describing the Vietnam war can be observed in the following excerpt from a marine giving a speech supporting involvement in Vietnam:
Americans had not choice but to keep fighting in Vietnam until they achieved victory or until the Communists realized they could not force their way of life on weak countries. (Vonnegut 61)
The irony here is that in Vietnam, America was forcing was forcing its ways on a Vietnam, which was weak due to political unrest and revolution by the members of the NVA. Here, the speaker has the situation dead wrong; if the goal was to stop interventionist policies, then the speaker should be opposed to American involvement in Vietnam, yet the marine comes out in support of fighting in Vietnam. And further, if and only if America achieved victory in Vietnam would any country have forced their way of life on a weak country.
The marine continues, using self-contradictory and conflicting statements:
He was in favor of increasing bombings, of bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason. (Vonnegut 61)
Bombing a country because they don’t agree with America’s views is not a reasonable course of action, and in bombing Vietnam, America has given up on reason in this situation. All this time, Billy “was not moved”, and his attitude can best be described as unbothered by all that is happening during the war. This represents a kind of political advocacy inadequacy that started about this time.
Now Apply This Generally
A common problem within the USA, and specifically the average citizen, I think, is that they are not particularly interested with politics, is not questioning the causes and reasons for America going to war, but rather only that America is successful in the war. It is both dangerous and unacceptable to have an uninformed populace, if we want to progress.
Their Perception of Time is Not Like Our Own
The setting of Slaughterhouse Five is interesting, especially temporally, because of its non-linear manner. It is similar to one of Vonnegut’s other novels, Timequake, in that stories are often told out of order, and the story and plot require much longer to develop fully. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy is shown, by fictional aliens from a Kilgore Trout novel, their perception of time. Essentially, time is not a scale from left to right, which you are only prescribed to occur at exactly one point at a time, but rather a scale which can be observed just as easily as walking over a meter to view some other area of our physical world. This can be seen as Billy adopts this view, recording himself saying “I, Billy Pilgrim, will die, have died, and always will die on February thirteenth, 1976” (Vonnegut 134). This view of provable pre-determinism is integral to how Pilgrim views people constrained to the typical linear timeline.
A Meaningless Prayer
Billy Pilgrim has a prayer on his wall, that reads:
“GOD GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE,
COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN,
AND WISDOM TO ALWAYS TELL THE DIFFERENCE”
While this would normally be considered an inspiring message, the sentence following introduces a certainly rebutting tone: “Billy Pilgrim could not change the past, the present, and the future” (Vonnegut 62). Here, of course, Pilgrim - and all humankind - are not really able to change their destiny, even if they convince themselves otherwise. The alien race, known as the Tralfamadorians, prove this by being able to view the past, present, or future anytime they please. Pilgrim is abducted and shown this power, so he is disillusioned by the the prayer, because he knows courage is useless, he has the wisdom to know that everything is unchangeable, but he lacks the serenity to deal with it, which leads to him recording his manifesto about this form of determinism.
My Consensus About the Book
I had only read this book once before this book report, which is less than most other works of Vonnegut’s. Rereading this book made me remember a kind of funny coincidence - or maybe Vonnegut planned it all out - with the date February 13th. In the book, Timequake, the timequake itself occurs on February 13, 2001, which is my birthday. He also mentions February 13, 1976 as the date that Billy Pilgrim will die, have died, and always will die. Furthermore, the bombing of Dresden occurs on a February 13th. Whenever I read Timequake, I find the date very amusing, and so reading Slaughterhouse Five and seeing the same date has a small and very weird positive feeling conjured up inside me.
Disregarding sentimental value, this book is actually not as good to me as Breakfast of Champions or Timequake. However, it still has some interesting thoughts and ideas within it, specifically those based around war and America’s perception of that subject. But overall, it seems like it is too centered on a single narrative, that of Billy Pilgrim, for me to enjoy it like other of Vonnegut’s books. Specifically, I personally agree with his view of hard pre-determinism. It is very enjoyable to read about a universe in which my personal beliefs are hard, recorded, and verifiable fact, which isn’t true in the universe we live in.
What I Gained From It
About learning, I am not sure I learned much. The Lion’s club meeting was a funny and amusing speech delivered by the marine, but I already knew that people can put all logic out the door while supporting America’s endeavors. I think the reason I didn’t learn as much as I did while reading The Red Badge of Courage is that I was far less acquainted with civil war era issues than I am with World War 2 through Vietnam happenings. However, I would say that the prayer posted in Pilgrim’s office, Pilgrim’s infatuation with Kilgore Trout’s writing, and Pilgrim’s colleagues’ lifestyles were both entertaining and enlightening about America’s politically and emotionally affectionate. I would say that most of the learning occurring during my reading was more or less strengthening loose or unsure statements I had about the concepts being discussed. For most of the concepts and phenomena discussed, I had already thought about, but this reading gave me new directions and understanding about those topics.