Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, Slaughterhouse-Five, is an incredible little book, and I do not believe that it is a stretch to place such a book in the thin-air region of the top 100 of all time. A cult following has developed and the Vonnegut army has a wide and diverse population. No, it is not a fad or trendy thing. It is powerful, based on the true story of Vonnegut himself in World War II. I just have a problem with the same, regurgitated line used to describe this book. I will explain.
As a military veteran, there are many things that drew me to this book. Yes, Vonnegut is a brilliant writer; however, I do NOT think that this is an antiwar novel. I truly do not know how this trend began. In full disclosure, I admit that this is the only Vonnegut I have read. I also have not read any interviews by him about this particular book, yet. Maybe he said it was a protest against war. At this point, I just do not know. I have a suspicious feeling that the many scholarly civilians who read Slaughterhouse may have interpreted it this book as antiwar, because war is a horrible, horrible thing. Death comes in bunches and is non-discriminatory.
So it goes.
Vonnegut references a few books in this novel and is something that sticks out to me. Only someone who understands the military and its wartime mission can truly comprehend WHY a passage from The Destruction of Dresden is used by Vonnegut, quoting Lt. Gen Ira Eaker, U.S.A.F.:
“I find it difficult to understand Englishmen or Americans who weep about enemy civilians who were killed but who have not shed a tear for our gallant crews lost in combat with a cruel enemy . . . I deeply regret that British and U.S. bombers killed 135,000 people in the attack on Dresden, but remember who started this war and I regret even more the loss of more than 5,000,000 Allied lives in the necessary effort to completely defeat and utterly destroy Nazism.”
The underlying current of coping with post traumatic stress disorder (that maybe Vonnegut experienced himself) is prevalent throughout the book, i.e. the time travel stuff that leaves many scratching their collective heads. Mental fatigue varies from soldier to soldier. Veterans handle their experiences in various ways and do their best to deal with how war devoured pieces of them that will never return. Some are quiet, some drink, some rage, some push it down, some write.
A major idea presented by Vonnegut is that most, if not all, wars are fought by children. I can agree for the most part, because a vast majority of our military are people who are right out of high school or just graduated college. Does it make war any worse? Maybe. At the very end of World War II (the main focus of this book is about the bombing of Dresden), Hitler had only very young teenagers and very old men left to fight. My own grandfather witnessed this many, many times and had terrible nightmares about his own killing of a young Nazi (in his early teens), at the end of the war, when he ran out in front of my grandfather’s tank and was shot.
So it goes.
Vonnegut’s transference of emotion in this book is incredible. The confusion and even the humor reverberate though the pages. I even felt a bit of regret. Why? The same reason my grandfather took his “nerve medicine” when his hands started trembling: Why did I make it through all of that when so many did not. The structure of Slaughterhouse is also powerful, short and choppy lines with long drawn out scenes of nothingness. There is little I can scribble that will add or take away from his work. Vonnegut deserves to be read just for placing himself, his own struggles, out there for the world to read. There is a reason why Graham Greene declared Vonnegut “one of the best living American writers.” Vonnegut definitely left his mark in the world of humanity and died in 2007. So it goes.