The Horror of War Exposed in Slaughterhouse Five


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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

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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

humanity.

 

      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?"

 


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