My favorite passage from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

by Mr. Sheehy

Billy . . . went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody good as new.

***

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed. (93-95)

An arrestingly beautiful passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut is unflinchingly and unrelentingly anti-war, and while I’m no pacifist who thinks that war can be avoided, I find myself agreeing with his observations about war pretty well every time. The paradox reminds me of comments Shelby Foote made about war literature, comments that in mentioning the absurd interestingly segue to the power of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, one of the more absurd novels I’ve read:

There’s a general belief that war books promote a love of war. That is true of bad war books, but every serious book about a battle or about a war, if it’s serious, it’s bound to be anti-war. All good literature about war is anti-war. If you are celebrating the glory of war, you’re writing trash, if that’s what you’re doing, because the truth is it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the pain and the suffering are a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory. And that will come across with an honest writer. Cheap literature hurts everybody, but decent, honest literature will always carry this anti-war message, it’s bound to be there. No matter how patriotic a man may sound, underlying it, if he’s got a good eye, everybody’s going to see through the phony patriotism, the ephemeral glory and to the real suffering it’s caused, especially the absurdity of it. You talk about theatre of the absurd; battle is the most absurd action man can take part in.

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