“Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade” is a fiction novel by Kurt Vonnegut, based on the personal experience about the World War II and the bombing of Dresden in the beginning of 1945. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kurt Vonnegut joined the ranks of the US Army as volunteer and took part in the Second World War. In 1944, he was prisoned by Germans during the Ardennes counteroffensive operation and was moved to Dresden, where, along with other prisoners of war, he worked at a factory that produced the vitaminized syrup for pregnant German women. In Dresden, Vonnegut acquired his most crucial war experience.
In February 1945, he was a witness of bombing Dresden by Allied Air Forces. Kurt Vonnegut was among several American prisoners of war who managed to survive those days in Dresden. The prisoners were locked up at night in the city slaughterhouse, which was not working. During the bombing, Germans took prisoners in the basement, where meat carcasses were stored. There were almost no real bomb shelters in the city because Dresden did not present a strategically important target. By miraculously avoiding death by friendly bombers, Vonnegut fully knew the horror of the war when he had to dismantle the ruins together with other prisoners and pull out thousands of dead from the wreckage. Vonnegut was liberated by the Soviet Army in May 1945. As the writer thinks, the bombing of Dresden could not explained by the war necessity. In this operation, most of the dead were civilians, residential quarters were destroyed, and many monuments of architecture were lost. Vonnegut, being, no doubt, against Nazism, does not recognize that bombing of Dresden was a “punishment” for the Nazi crimes. So, the novel was censored in the US, listed as “harmful” books and was withdrawn from libraries.
Almost all this happened in reality. The novel begins with these words, which, as the author warned, are partly written in the slightly telegraphic-schizophrenic style, the method used on the Tralfamadore planet, from where the flying saucers come to the Earth. The protagonist of the book, Billy Pilgrim, according to the narrator’s expression, is disconnected with the time, and different strange events occur with him. One day, Billy went to bed as an elderly widower, and he woke up on his wedding day. He entered the door in 1955 and left it in 1941. Then, he stepped through the same door and found himself in 1961. He says that he saw his birth and his death and used to come up during other events of his life between birth and death many times. Billy Pilgrim was born in the fictional city of Ilium, and in the same year, when the author himself was born. Like the latter, Billy fought in Europe, he was prisoned by Germans and survived in the bombing attack of Dresden, when more than 130,000 civilians died. He returned to America and, unlike his creator, entered courses of optometrists. He had a nervous breakdown, but he managed to cope with it. His affairs are going well. In 1968, he flies to an international congress of optometrists, but the plane gets into an accident, and all die but him. Then, he was in the hospital and everything went as usual. But then he gives an interview on TV and tells that he visited the planet of Tralfamadore in 1967, where he was delivered by a flying saucer. There, he was allegedly shown naked to local residents. They placed him in a zoo, where he met Montana Wildhack, the former Hollywood movie star, also stolen from the Earth.
Tralfamadorians are convinced that all living beings and plants in the universe are machines. They do not understand why inhabitants of the Earth are so offended when they are called machines. Tralfamadorians, by contrast, are very happy with their machine status: neither worry nor suffering. Machines do not torture themselves with questions about how the world goes. According to the scientific point of view adopted on that planet, the world must be accepted as it is.
The scientific knowledge dominates on Tralfamadore. Its inhabitants have unraveled all corners of the universe. They know when and how it will die. Tralfamadorians themselves will blow it up, testing a new fuel for their saucers, when a suitable moment comes. But the coming cataclysm does not spoil the mood of Tralfamadorians, guided by the principle of not paying attention to the bad points and concentrating on good ones. Billy himself always lives according to the Tralfamadorian rules. In this way, he does not care about Vietnam, where his son Robert participated in the war.
After the air crash, Billy is constantly flying between Earth and Tralfamadore. He also moves in time, from the barrack for prisoners of war in 1944 to America in 1967. Once he turns out to be in a luxurious Cadillac, which drives him through the Negro ghetto, where recently tanks of the National Guard oppressed the local population that tried to defend their rights. Billy hurries to dinner at the club, where a certain major will demand reinforcement for bombing Vietnam with foam at the mouth. Billy, as chairman, listened to his speech with interest and the major’s arguments do not raise any objections to him. The wanderings of Pilgrim are not occasional. His route is verified by the precise logic. Dresden 1945, Tralfamadore and the US in the late of sixties are in fact three planets in one galaxy, and they rotate in their orbits following the law of expediency, where goals always justify the means and the more a person acts as a machine, the better for him and for the human society. By the way, Billy Pilgrim knows beforehand that he will die on the exact day 1976, shot by a bullet.
In the Dresden fragment, the bombing of the German city and the death of one American prisoner of war are not accidental. Dresden was bombed as a result of a carefully planned operation, where the technology rules everything. An American citizen, Edgar Darby, who was a lecturer at a university before the war, is killed according to instructions. Digging up the rubble after the allied aviation attack, he finds a kettle. This did not go unnoticed by the German guards, and he was accused of marauding and shot down. Instructions worked out twice and the crime is committed twice. These events seemed different and interrelated, are generated by the logic of the machine pragmatism. Disconnected with the time, Billy Pilgrim acquires a specific gift of memory, the memory of historical events, holding in mind moments of his private existence intersected with the fate of other people and the fate of the whole civilization. Learning about the intention of the narrator to write an anti-militarist book, one of the characters exclaims that stopping wars is as easy as stopping glaciers, but everyone must do his duty.
In the second part of the book, titled “The Crusade of Children”, the narrator remembers the year of 1213, when two monks conceived a scam – the sale of children into the slavery. To do that, they announced the crusade of children to Palestine, having granted the approval of Pope Innocent III. Out of thirty thousand volunteers, half were lost in shipwrecks, nearly as many fell into the captivity, and only a small number of the little enthusiasts mistakenly landed where they were not expected. For the author, the same happened to innocently murdered and those who were sent to fight for the great common good in different points of the modern world. People turn out to become toys in military entertainments of powerful rulers of this world.
This book is commonly considered as one of best books, written by Kurt Vonnegut. It is worth reading and, possibly, it will turn some personal ideas about the war. The moments of the time do not follow one after another as beads on a string, but exist and will exist altogether in the same place and in the same time. Wandering around in time, it is better to choose the right doors, so that you do not accidentally end up in the slaughterhouse number five.