Saying something intelligent about a massacre

August 2, 2009

Slaughterhouse FiveBy Kurt VonnegutFirst published in 1969224 pages, $24.95

The enormity of massacre allowed by modern armaments beggars the moral imagination. What can be said in the face of the bombing of Hiroshima? How can the Holocaust be understood?

Ruling classes lead their nations to conveniently scorn outrages committed by their enemies and pass over in silence crimes committed in "our" name. One man who breached the silence was Kurt Vonnegut, whose anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five, centred on the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, was first published in 1969.

Dresden, a beautiful city graced with historic streets, was an "open city" in WWII. It contained no strategic industries, no concentration of troops, no air defences, nothing to warrant a single bomb falling.

Beginning on February 13, 1945, US and British planes dropped incendiary bombs creating a firestorm that killed tens of thousands. More than 700,000 phosphorous bombs were dropped. In city centre the temperature reached 1600 degrees centigrade, melting human flesh.

Why the Allies took the time to obliterate Dresden when they had deliberately not bombed the rail lines leading to the Nazi death camps is still unknown.

Like Billy Pilgrim, the novel's main character, Vonnegut accidentally survived the bombing, after being captured as a POW by the Germans. He had been kept in an underground cooler room beneath an abattoir — called Slaughterhouse 5.

The novel is framed as science fiction. Vonnegut introduces extra-terrestrial beings who can see the entire flow of time as one single moment. They teach Pilgrim to time travel, a literary metaphor for traumatised war veterans unable to stop painful memories from intruding and fantasies from overwhelming them.

These ploys allow Vonnegut to lace the entire concoction with acid humour and satire of the USA of his times. The black humour does not distract from the awful truth, it underlines the enormity of the crime of the bombing and the crime of the silence.

Slaughterhouse Five implicitly raises the question of what sort of American life could be built on the emotional ruins of the survivors of WWII except one characterised by self-deception, emotional blindness and madness?

But who is mad? The time travelling Pilgrim or the over-consuming, emotionally stunted people around him?

Slaughterhouse Five became an instant hit with the protesting youth building the anti-Vietnam War movement, who grasped its anti-militarist message. It appeared just as the US was learning of My Lai massacre in South Vietnam, where US troops raped and slaughtered defenceless Vietnamese villagers.

Some critics have described Slaughterhouse Five as a despairing novel, preaching passivity in the face of evil. Pilgrim sees the futility of humanity because he knows the future and cannot escape the truth of the past. But no-one will listen to him.

Did Vonnegut feel like that in the bland cultural wasteland of the 1950s US, with an entire nation refusing to hear that "their boys" in WWII had committed an atrocity? At the book's end the narrator blurts out: "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."

Vonnegut's achievement was to expose the insane illogic of the US war machine and to connect with a generation that was determined to stop it. In the process he created a literary classic, which speaks precisely and wisely about the massacre of Dresden and the subsequent deathliness of US life.

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