Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 31 Jan 2005
Slaughterhouse 5 is a work of fiction by Kurt Vonnegut, a former prisoner of war who witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden in 1945.
From the start, readers are tipped that the line separating fact from fiction is thin.
"All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunman at the end of the war. And so on. I've changed all the names."
According to Vonnegut in the introduction to Slaughterhouse 5, the Dresden bombing killed more combined people than both the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recent estimates suggest that between 35,000 to 100,000 were killed in the raid, many of them refugees fleeing from the Russian army in 1945. Source is here.
"So it goes."
This phrase is not a flip comment but a rhetorical device used by Vonnegut immediately after describing a death "circumstance," and there are hundreds in this novel. Slaughterhouse 5 isn't so much a book about tactics or unit histories as Keegan or Ambrose have respectively written, but is about death in its many forms. Soldiers, mothers and fathers, children, and animals. Everyone shared in the misery, including the fellow prisoner shot for holding a teapot, an object he picked up from the rubble after the bombing.
The construction of Slaughterhouse 5 is especially unique and Vonnegut uses a deft touch in avoiding any heavy-handed, collective "we shouldn't have done this or that" rhetoric. Instead, he told the story through one witness, who later in life met up with time traveling aliens. This unusual device allowed Vonnegut to twist the way he told the story and not be bound to any one timeline, and it allowed Billy, the main character, to relive certain moments in the first person: for instance, his capture by the Germans, and later, the bombing of Dresden (and its aftermath) while sheltered in a slaughterhouse basement. Readers, then, are left to decide how to interpret the events told in the book, as seen through the eyes of Billy. The many shifts, however, require readers to pay close attention to where they are in the narrative.
One memorable passage concerns Billy, who is called a "motherf%#$er" by a fellow soldier for doing something stupid just before his capture. The words were "fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never f%#$ed anybody." Billy, of course, is barely out of school, new to the battlefield and wholly unprepared for the duties of soldiering. This is one of the hallmarks of the book. One moment, you might be laughing at a character or circumstance, then paragraphs later facing some new horrifying detail about the war. Vonnegut also shows that the survival of Billy is one of those chance events, when more experienced soldiers with him are killed, as well as the thousands who died in the raid. Billy just keeps moving through it all, despite his ineptness.
Slaughterhouse 5 is an important book from a writer who witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut doesn't attack the reasons for the raid, though he does convey the horrors of its aftermath particularly well, and this is worth reading, especially for students of history and literature willing to see a great writer engage a dark moment in history. There is no glorification or romanticism of war here, just an even-handed and stark narrative.
"So it goes."
Please also see WW2DB contributor C. Peter Chen's review of Slaughterhouse 5.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945