When an Anti-War Novel Isn’t

10 Sep

I never thought about how postmodernism would affect an anti-war novel before I read Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve read a few other pieces of anti-war fiction–Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Mark Twain’s short story “The War Prayer”–but this was an entirely different experience.

All Quiet on the Western Front and “The War Prayer” have disparities beyond the fact that one is long and the other is short. Remarque wrote a bloody novel about the horrors of war. Twain’s story was a satirical look at how Christians, supposedly serving the Prince of Peace, can glorify the destruction of their enemies, ignoring Christ’s command to love them. Yet both stories share a common theme–people often hold unrealistic and even evil attitudes toward armed conflict, but they shouldn’t. They certainly don’t have to.

It’s hard to write a novel where the characters do not have free will. Flannery O’Connor, in fact, considered it nearly impossible: “I don’t think any genuine novelist is interested in writing about a world of people who are mostly determined. Even if he writes about characters who are mostly unfree, it is the sudden free action, the open possibility, which he knows is the only thing capable of illuminating the picture and giving it life.”

O’Connor died five years before Kurt Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five. I wonder what she would have thought of it—an anti-war novel, now considered a sci-fi classic, in which none of the characters really have free will. For those who haven’t read the book, an American prisoner of war named Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time and jumps back and forth from Nazi Germany to a planet called Tralfamadore (where he is put in the zoo) to his post-war days as an optometrist. In fact, he hops through time all the way to his murder as an old man, and then back to Nazi Germany, where he is imprisoned with the man who is going to kill him.

The Tralfamadorians, Billy discovers, see a fourth dimension—time. They see their own lives, and others’ lives, all at once. To a Tralfamadorian, death is an unfortunate moment in a person’s life, not a linear end. It isn’t a tragedy. The Tralfamadorian response to death is the phrase, “So it goes.” They also try to focus on the happy spots in their lives. But, to them, all time exists at once, so free will isn’t even something that they understand. Billy Pilgrim adopts their peculiar blend of apathetic happiness and applies it to everything, from his own death to the American firebombing of Dresden, the city where he was held prisoner.

After reading the book, George Will evidently accused Vonnegut of trivializing the Holocaust. Vonnegut returned the favor by calling Will an “owlish nitwit.” Vonnegut said he had intended no such thing; rather, he was expressing shock at the aftermath of the Dresden bombing, which he had witnessed. The Holocaust, contended Vonnegut, was about man’s inhumanity to man. Dresden was about the inhumanity of man’s inventions to man.

Thus the accusations by others that Vonnegut advocates quietism–simple resigned acceptance to the status quo. “So it goes.” Does Vonnagut himself take the same position as the one held by the Tralfamadorians and by Billy? I doubt it, given Vonnegut’s strident opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Postmodern works are, by their very nature, difficult to pin down. But maybe that is the problem.

Slaughterhouse-Five stands apart from earlier anti-war writings. It succeeded in bringing attention to the injustice of the Dresden firebombing. In that sense, it was successfully anti-war. But another thing is clear. Where the characters do not have–or apparently do not have–free will, there can be no ringing condemnation of anything. To Billy Pilgrim, if not to Vonnegut himself, Dresden was regrettable, but unavoidable. It was horrible and unnecessary, but no one was to blame. I have begun to ask myself, Is it possible to write a postmodern novel that actually condemns unjust warfare?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that if “So it goes” is what people mean when they say that good and evil are not black and white, then I want no part of it. We are responsible for our actions. We are even responsible for our machines.


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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in Science Fiction


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