The cover calls this an anti-war book, but I really didn't get that message from it at all. That characterization may stem from the fact that Slaughterhouse Five (SH5) was published in 1969, when anti-war sentiments in general were high, so maybe readers were just eager to believe it was anti-war. I think the heart and soul of this story is on page 198. It is twenty-three years after World War II, and protagonist Billy Pilgrim is speaking with another veteran:
"It had to be done," Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden."I know," said Billy."That's war.""I know. I'm not complaining""It must have been hell on the ground.""It was," said Billy Pilgrim."Pity the men who had to do it.""I do."
You call that anti-war? I don't. In fact, it's kind of like what you see in the Bhagavad Gita
, when the war drums are beating, and infantry is taking formation on the field, and Prince Arjuna can see his people are on the verge of a terrible conflict, which will inevitably cause great sufferring. Krishna tells Arjuna not to grieve over that which is inevitable. That's not pacificsm; it's fatalism, and the same sentiment comes up again and again in SH5, where Vonnegut closes every tragedic episode with the phrase "So it goes". Krishna elaborates:
"The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor the dead. There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be. That which is non-existent can never come into being, and that which is can never cease to be. Those who have known the inmost Reality know also the nature of is and is not Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed. Therefore you must fight."
This could have come straight from the four-dimensional-seeing Tralfamadorians. Viewing all times simultaneously, nobody ever seems dead to them, because they always see a person simultaneously when they are living, as well as when they are dead. That's the way things are. It's all part of the great and inevitable plan of the universe; everything that happens, happens because the universe was structured that way. The Tralfamadorians are not intentionally callous; they just recognize that so much of our lives are beyond our control. Each of us lives and dies, suffers or delights, at the whim of historical, natural and statistical forces much more powerful than ourselves. When they council Billy Pilgrim to enjoy the good times, and not to dwell on the bad, it isn't just trite, it's also good advice. Dr Suess makes the same pill easier to swallow with "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."Kurt Vonnegut's real-life experiences in World War II mirror those of Billy Pilgrim. He saw the city of Dresden leveled by allied bombing in one night. The bombs were conventional (i.e. not atomic), but the civilian casualties outnumbered those of Hiroshima. In the chaos and starvation that followed, survivors wondered if they weren't better off dead. That's a lot of misery to process, both for Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut copes by writing Slaughterhouse Five
. Pilgrim copes by imagining he's abducted by aliens and put in a zoo, mate-paired with a Hollywood movie star. ...Or maybe you can read SH5 and decide those things really did
happen, but I find that to be a less interesting interpretation. I've never touched war directly, but there are people in my life who have, and for each of them, it was a life-altering trauma. War changes people. That's commonly said, even apart from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are just limits to what the human psyche can handle, and war frequently exceeds those limits. Billy Pilgrim invents adventures on Tralfamadore as an escape, but one which carries with it some of the comfort of the Bhagavad Gita
. It would be more simple for Billy to just become an absolute pacifist, railing out against war and violence, in all their forms. Unfortunately, Billy knows -and Kurt Vonnegut knows- that World War II was a just war, from the Allied perspective. Bowing down to Hitler and everything he stood for was not a moral option. It sucked. A lot of good men and women died, who should not have. A lot of lives were ripped apart. Survivors like Vonnegut and Pilgrim bore a burden from it for the rest of their lives, but they knew it was a war that had to be fought. So it goes.