Slaughterhouse-Five Context

Vonnegut & WW II - The Vietnam War

Slaughterhouse-Five (1968) is focused on Billy, an American who survived the bombing of Dresden and who lives a superficial life after the war. Numbed by his experience, Billy starts to see life from an alien perspective which allows him to take a detached view of human existence -- even to the point where he blithely agrees with his son's decision to enlist in the Vietnam War. While the novel is in many ways comic, this comedy is used to counter, and render accessible, the horror of war -- especially the bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II and the bombing of Vietnam in the late 1960s. 

Vonnegut & WWII

The Battle of the Bulge

Vonnegut was an American private fighting in Germany, and was captured toward the end of World War II, during the "Battle of the Bulge." The following paragraph and photos are from Wikipedia, "Battle of the Bulge":

The Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II. It was launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg, towards the end of World War II. The surprise attack caught the Allied forces completely off guard. American forces bore the brunt of the attack and incurred their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany's armored forces, and they were largely unable to replace them. German personnel and, later, Luftwaffe aircraft (in the concluding stages of the engagement) also sustained heavy losses.

M3 90mm gun -armed American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.

M3 90mm gun-armed American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.

Americans of the  101st Engineers near  Wiltz , Luxembourg, January 1945.

Americans of the 101st Engineersnear Wiltz, Luxembourg, January 1945.

Dresden

The bombing of German cities like Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden can be seen as a response to the German bombing of English cities like London, Coventry, and Bath. The following videos look at some of the German bombing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx0e95aQwqQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEg0XUGukzQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p35Yh1ZIEZ4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iqq5vopMxM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHknZf4AXKc

After Vonnegut's capture, he spent half a year as a POW in Dresden, which was rich in culture and art, had taken in many war refugees, and had little military or strategic importance. 

In the following video, Vonnegut speaks -- from from 6:00 - 32:00 minutes -- about his experience in Germany and about his opposition to bombing of civilian targets.

The following pages on the bombing of Dresden are from Europe: A History (Norman Davies, 1996, pp. 414-415):

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Dresden before the bombing (from Pinterest, "Saved from thevintagenews.com)

Dresden before the bombing (from Pinterest, "Saved from thevintagenews.com)

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The Vietnam War

For historical information about the Vietnam War, see the timeline in The Cold War.

Slaughterhouse-Five deals openly and explicitly with the bombing of Dresden, yet at key moments Vonnegut suggests that what he's writing about also applies to the American bombing of Vietnam. It's hard to grasp the scale of this bombing, yet the following (from Wikipedia's entry, "List of Bombing Campaigns of the Vietnam War") gives a sense of the numbers involved: 

The bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War were the longest and heaviest aerial bombardment in history. The United States Air Force, the U. S. Navy, and U. S. Marine Corps aviation dropped 7,662,000 tons of explosives. By comparison, U. S. forces dropped a total of 2,150,000 tons of bombs in all theaters of World War II.

The following video paints a brief, sad picture of the bombing:  

The following video shows aerial bombing to the sound of The Door's "This is the End" (1967). The song was originally written by Jim Morrison about a break-up, yet here it's used as a dark, disturbing commentary on American violence in Vietnam. The complete lyrics are below the video. You aren't required to watch the video or listen to the lyrics, especially since they're disturbing -- like the bombing itself.

The End

This is the end, beautiful friend / This is the end, my only friend, the end / Of our elaborate plans, the end / Of everything that stands, the end / No safety or surprise, the end / I'll never look into your eyes, again

Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free? / Desperately in need of some stranger's hand / In a desperate land

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain / And all the children are insane, all the children are insane / Waiting for the summer rain, yeah

There's danger on the edge of town / Ride the King's highway, baby / Weird scenes inside the gold mine / Ride the highway west, baby / Ride the snake, ride the snake / To the lake, the ancient lake, baby / The snake is long, seven miles / Ride the snake, he's old, and his skin is cold / The west is the best, the west is the best / Get here, and we'll do the rest / The blue bus is callin' us, the blue bus is callin' us / Driver, where you takin' us?

[The following is a version of the Greek story of Oedipus:] The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on / He took a face from the ancient [Greek] gallery / And he walked on down the hall / He went into the room where his sister lived, and, then he / Paid a visit to his brother, and then he / He walked on down the hall, and / And he came to a door, and he looked inside / "Father" / "Yes son" / "I want to kill you" / "Mother, I want to, [blurred] you"

C'mon baby, take a chance with us / C'mon baby, take a chance with us / C'mon baby, take a chance with us / And meet me at the back of the blue bus / Doin' a blue rock, on a blue bus / Doin' a blue rock, c'mon, yeah / Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill

This is the end, beautiful friend / This is the end, my only friend, the end / It hurts to set you free / But you'll never follow me / The end of laughter and soft lies / The end of nights we tried to die / This is the end