“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’ ” (Vonnegut 3)
Just as Kurt Vonnegut humorously suggests in the introduction of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, warfare is an unchanged motif in human history. Thousands of years ago, warriors began fighting against each other with bows and arrows. Today, armies could attack their counterparts with modern weaponries ranging from guns to nuclear bombs. In the future, there will still be wars. Wars are being written all the time as they are being fought all the time. But the thing about most of these works is that they are written with a macroscopic view, focusing on the results of the war more than anything else. Luckily, this is not the case for Slaughterhouse-Five, in which Vonnegut takes a different approach to convey his massage through the experience of an ordinary prisoner of war, Billy Pilgrim. The crafty characterization of the protagonist and the unique writing tactics made this anti-war book one of a kind.
Besides the ability to travel through time, Billy Pilgrim is the most banal soldier. Or is he even a soldier? Probably not. He is just there to replace a “regimental chaplain’s assistant” (30) who had been killed, at least that is the plan. Due to the cruelty of warfare, he soon becomes a “dazed wanderer” (30) in the cold Luxembourg winter with “no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots” (31). Not long after this ludicrous scene, Billy is captured by the Germans and becomes a prisoner of war. Since Vonnegut, who was a student at Cornell University before joining the U.S. Army, had also been captured by the Nazis during World War II, the situation of Billy is representational. Billy and Vonnegut are just two of the million lives that got involved in a ruthless war just because of the ambition of a few people. Millions of innocent lives are put on the battlefield when they could be somewhere else doing something meaningful. But when there is a war, no one cares about that anymore. Anyone at the frontline is a soldier, ready to be killed at any moment. Behind the handful of war heroes who got their names into history books, there were millions of ordinary soldiers who experienced hell but forgotten by many. As long as they win, nothing is going to happen to the people who launched the war. Only ordinary men and women suffer, even if they are not soldiers. This misery does not end as the war ends. Three months after Billy gets in Europe, Dresden was bombarded to “nothing but minerals” (169). Billy survives the bombing, but not the trauma it brings. Billy finds himself “weeping” (59) “with no apparent reason” (59) every now and then. Although Billy is on the frontline for less than a year, the harrowing effect of it is enough to continually interrupt his life. Vonnegut, who experienced the bombing of Dresden in 1945, must has the same feeling, which formed his belief of anti-war and urged him to write this book of Dresden. As an insignificant participant of the World War II, Vonnegut successfully depicts the dreadfulness of the war through the experience of another negligible factor in the war, Billy Pilgrim.
Vonnegut’s writing techniques also helps to carry strong messages. One of the first thing I notice when I first reading was the repetitive use of the phrase “so it goes” (2). Whenever someone dies or something terrible happens, Vonnegut says “so it goes”. Although he uses this phrase 106 times in this two-hundred-page book, it never seems tedious. After experiencing the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut himself and Billy probably see everything related with death to be ordinary. In fictional part of the story, Billy also appears to be careless as he practices the worldview of the Tralfamadorians to see any moment as eternal. The recurring “so it goes” not only stresses the hurtful effect of the war, but also keeps reminding readers to treasure every moment of life, as in our world moments are not eternal. If a moment pass, so it goes. Nothing can be done to bring that same moment back. Another feature of this book is the division of chapters into many small sections. On the surface, the division is a kind move of Vonnegut to help readers following the rapid time traveling. But in essence, I believe the little sections carries a metaphor to the war. Each section depicts a scene but also links to other sections to form the entire story, just as a war is consist of many individual battles, which the result affect the entire war. But on the other hand, the division and the time travel sometimes make people think the story is broken to an extent. This is exactly what a war does. It breaks innocent people’s bodies and hearts. It breaks nations apart. It breaks anything that possibly can be broken. Similarly, Vonnegut never uses complex language in his writing. All the sentences are concise and simple. Other than the occasional humor, the writing is plain and not always exciting. But this is exactly the atmosphere the author needs to create in this book. Wars are not beautiful, they are cruel and unpleasant. Readers are constantly reminded of this feature of the war as they continually encounter these plain illustrations. The combination of reality and figment in the book is also clever. In the first sentence of the book, Vonnegut declares everything in the book has “more or less” (1) happened. Then he spends the first chapter writing about the preparation and publication of the “famous book about Dresden” (17). Although this is not conventional, it allows the author to important message that is perhaps not easy to incorporate in to the fictional story, like the one in the beginning of this book review. From the second chapter to the ninth chapter, the narrator rarely appears, which leaves enough space for the science fiction element to be convincing. On this rare occasion that the narrator does appear, he explains the selection of the “epigraph of this book” (188), which helps readers to understand the book more. In the beginning of the last chapter, Vonnegut mentions the deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and the U.S. Army in Vietnam. When this book was originally published in 1969, these events would be current and demonstrate people how prevalent violence still was even though the World Wars has ended. Throughout the book, Vonnegut has cleverly use his tricks of writing to convey the overarching theme: war is evil.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a masterpiece, perhaps one of the greatest anti-war books of all time. Kurt Vonnegut is an amazing writer, who’s writing skills we admire. But more important than any of these is the cause Vonnegut believed in and expressed in his work: anti-war. In the past year, there were four on-going military conflicts that has caused more than ten thousand lives. If the wars were not fought, these dead souls could be alive and be the best father, mother, son, daughter, brother, or sister of someone else. Many innocent people like Billy Pilgrim are suffering because of these endless wars. There are better ways to solve a problem than killing other human beings. Even if you are fighting for the so-called justice, warfare is not as much as an honor than a pain. “The nicest veterans...the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who'd really fought.” (10)