The Horror of War Exposed in Slaughterhouse Five
When one begins to analyze a military novel it is important to
first look at the historical context in which the book was written. On the
nights of February 13-14 in 1944 the city of Dresden
, Germany was subjected
to one of the worst air attacks in the history of man. By the end of the
bombing 135,000 to 250,000 people had been killed by the combined forces of
the United States and the United Kingdom. Dresden was different then Berlin
or many of the other military targets which were attacked during World War
II because it was never fortified or used for strategic purposes and,
therefore, was not considered a military target. Because of it's apparent
safety, thousands of refugees from all over Europe converged on Dresden
for protection (Klinkowitz 2-3). Dresden's neutrality was broken and the
resulting attacks laid waste, what Vonnegut called, "the Florence of the
Elbe." Kurt Vonnegut was a witness to this event and because of fate, had
been spared. He wrote Slaughterhouse
Five to answer the questi on that
resounded through his head long after the bombs could no longer be heard.
"Why me?"- a frequent question asked by survivors of war.
Vonnegut was tormented by this question and through Billy Pilgrim,
the protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five, he attempts to reconcile the guilt
which one feels when one is randomly saved from death, while one's friends
and loved ones perish. Billy Pilgrim's own life
was spared, but was never
able to live with himself knowing that so many others had died. The
feelings of guilt which emerged from his having survived the bombing of
Dresden and from Billy's fortunate escape from death under the shelter of
the fifth Slaughterhouse haunted Billy through much of his life. Billy
Pilgrim did not consider his survival a blessing, but a curse. A curse to
be forced to live on with the guilt of survival. Billy Pilgrim faced such
tremendous guilt, that he spent his entire life after Dresden trying to
alleviate himself of it. His guilt is in many ways comparable to the guilt
felt by the survivors of the Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors had to
face their own "Why me?" question. However, many Holocaust survivors w ere
able to reconcile their feelings of guilt or put it out of their minds.
This solution was never viable for Billy Pilgrim. Billy's guilt made life
so unbearable that he could no longer live with himself and he rejected the
life that had been granted to him. There was no answer to Billy's question
because war is not logical, nor is it just. Never could one give a
justification for the fortuitous slaughtering of the innocent, which
claimed the lives of Dresden's inhabitants. This idea is exemplified in
the secondary title Slaughterhouse Five is known by, The Children's Crusade.
The Children's Crusade was one of the many Christian "Holy" Wars which
aimed on destroying the Muslim people. The Children's Crusade was really a
ploy by entrepreneurs to sell Christian children into slavery. Thousands of
children were killed on ships en-route to the slave market and many others
were sold, never to be seen again. Vonnegut gives the Children's "Crusade"
as an example of the atrocities and in-humane acts which tran
spire under the auspices of War. That is why Billy Pilgrim invents a world
where a justification can be given, where life and death are meaningless
and feelings of guilt disappear. The only way Billy Pilgrim can confront
this guilt is to excuse his survival and trivialize the gift of life and
the cruelty of death. He creates a new world where he can be free from his
guilt. That world is called Tralfamador.
The Traflamadorian world provided Billy Pilgrim with the escape
that he needed from his guilt. The Traflamadorian people are not locked in
a three dimensional realm. They are not locked in the frames of time to
which the human world is forced to live in. Traflamadorians can "shift"
through time as seamlessly as humans can walk towards a point. This ability
allows them to focus on the pleasant moments in the history of the Universe
and ignore the aspects of time they dislike. Thus, the fire-bombing of
Dresden is just a tiny frame in the vast space time continuum. The guilt of
Billy's being saved is reconciled by eliminating the existence of a past,
present, and future. Since any fraction of time is accessible in the
Tralfamadorian world death is just a tiny part of existence that is ignored
like the fire-bombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim reinvents himself and his
universe to gain purpose in his guilt ridden life (Lundquist 82).
The Tralfamadorians are real to Billy because without them he
cannot live with himself (Lundquist 82). Billy believes that he was taken
by a Tralfamdorian ship to be an exhibit of a human being in a
Tralfamdorian Zoo. On Tralfamador, Billy is exposed to an entire new way of
thinking which neutralizes the "Why me?" question. In the Tralfamdorian
view of the Universe, guilt does not exist because in their view one is not
responsible for one's actions. Whatever will, or has happened will always
happen and did always happen. There is no way to change the course of
events. Everything is predetermined. Billy is told by the Tralfamadores
(regarding Tralfamador) that:
Today we do (have peace). On other days we have wars as
horrible as any you've ever seen or read about. There isn't
anything we can do about them, so we simply don't look at
them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant
moments (Vonnegut 101).
The Tralfamadorians even now when and who will destroy the Universe, yet
they make no attempt to stop it because in their eyes it cannot be stopped.
Billy, by accepting the Tralfamadorian view, frees himself from the guilt
which one feels when one is locked in time and responsible for one's
actions. Billy Pilgrim grasps the Tralfamadorian philosophy and insists the
Tralfamadorian world exists because it eliminates the "Why me?" question.
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime
wrong ;a feeling of culpability. For example if one steals a hundred
dollars, one would feel remorse over that action and wish one had not done
it. Under the Tralfamadorian outlook Billy Pilgrim does not have to feel
remorse for being saved because that is how it was and always will happen.
He does not have to feel guilt or remorse because there is no reason to.
There is nothing that can be done about war and death, "they are as easy to
stop as glaciers." (Vonnegut 3) The death of all those innocent people
could not be stopped, it was predetermined by some unknown force just as
the destruction of the Universe, by a Tralfamadorian testing a new fuel, is
also predetermined and unstoppable.
Vonnegut uses irony by having Billy Pilgrim an Optometrist, whose
job it is to help others see the world more clearly with greater acuity and
sensitivity. Billy believes it his job to "prescribe corrective lenses for
Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy
believed, because they could not see as well as his little green friends on
Tralfamdore." (Vonnegut 25) This is in essence what the Tralfamadorians
teach him that the Human view of time is erroneous (Tanner 198). The
Tralfamdorians give Billy an analogy of how humans perceive time:
Human vision is something so narrow and restricted...to
convey to themselves what it must be like they have to
imagine a creature with a metal sphere around his head who
looks down a long, thin pipe seeing only a tiny speck at
the end. He cannot turn his head around and he is strapped
to a flatcar on rails which goes in one direction (Vonnegut).
Billy by accepting the Tralfamadorian view of the world frees himself from
the metal sphere and from his guilt. Much of Billy's guilt rested on his
view of time and nature. Before he was introduced to the Tralfamadorian
viewpoint he believed in crusading against war and the death of the
innocent and felt guilty and upset when another human's life was blindly
taken. After coming to newly understand the limits of human vision and the
naiveté of human-kind, namely that one can change what will happen and
guide one's actions Billy felt no sympathy for death and made no attempt to
right injustice and stop the atrocities of war.
Although Billy finds peace in the many positive aspects of the
Tralfamadorian mind-set, there also exist many negatives to his new vision.
The many aspects of Billy's life which his new vision touch are clearly
outlined in Slaughterhouse-Five. For example, whenever there is a tragic
death or an entire city is destroyed Billy says what all Tralfamdorians say
"so it goes." Billy does not feel remorse or anger when he hears of the
war in Vietnam because it is just a frame in time, which has, is and always
will happen. Just as the universe will be destroyed by the Tralfamdorians
but no attempt is made to stop it. At one point in the novel Billy sees a
war movie in reverse, he describes it as follows:
The formation flew over a German city that was in flames.
The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a
miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them
into cylindrical steel containers and lifted the containers
into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored
in neatly racks..When the bombers got back to their base,
the steel cylinders were shipped to factories where
operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders,
separating the dangerous contents...so they would never
hurt anybody again. (Vonnegut 64)
Vonnegut uses this imagery to dramatize effectively the cruelty of bombing.
Billy's Tralfamadorian view of this war film is an obvious improvement over
the forward version. However, with the Tralfamdorian view also comes a
heavy price. The cost of this new vision is the human conscience and the
concern for life (Tanner 198). The Tralfamdorian view extracts the human
conscience, which separates humans from the rest of the animal world. The
price for a "guilt free" life is the most precious part of human life,
emotions. (Tanner 198)
With the Tralfamdorian view comes another steep price, free will.
Billy is told by the Tralfamadorians that free will is a uniquely human
belief. (Schatt 82) He is told that war, disease, and even the end of the
universe is all pre-determined, and that nothing he does can change what
will happen. The notion of free will is what gives human life meaning. Part
of the "spice" of life is the feeling of accomplishment one has when he
succeeds or the feeling of sorrow when he fails. These feelings cannot
exist when one's actions are not of one's own choice but pre-determined.
When all that happens, is decided by an unknown force, failure, triumph and
sorrow cannot exist because one is not responsible any longer for bringing
about those emotions. This can easily explain why Billy's life is so dreary
and depressing. His acceptance of the Tralfamdorian world has freed him
from his guilt, but it has also freed him from "living.". On his tombstone
it is written "everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." Although this
message on the surface would seem perfect, it in reality points to the
short-comings of Billy's life. One cannot enjoy life and happiness, if he
has no feelings and lacks all remorse. In the end of his life Billy is
"unenthusiastic about living, while stoically enduring it, which may be a
sign of the accidie which settles on a man with an atrophied conscience."
(Tanner 199) Billy pilgrim has full knowledge, of who, when and where he
will be murdered, yet he does nothing about it. While this could be looked
at as an acceptance of the Tralfamdorian way of life, it also points to the
fact that Billy does not want to stop it because life offers him nothing.
The price of for Billy's release from guilt, was Billy's release from
Slaughterhouse-Five clearly expresses Vonengut's terrible outrage
at the catastrophic fire-bombing of Dresden. But it does more than that.
It's underlying theme is not just against the atrocities of Dresden but
against all War. Vonnegut's unorthodox stylistic approach which lacks any
sequential path, draws the reader deeper into the Tralfamadorian world.
Although Vonnegut's character was able to reconcile his life to some extent,
Vonnegut was not. Vonnegut was never able to answer his own "Why me?" but
in truth a broader question exists "Why any of us?"