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John Murphy | 10.02.08

Books

Disasters of War

Disasters of War

So here we are, facing a global economic collapse and an election where both candidates represent the lesser of another evil. It’s time to turn to Kurt Vonnegut, whose unique blend of bleak humor, genuine outrage, and dark surreality seems more relevant than ever, and more cogent than a cadre of political and economic analysts.

Armageddon in Retrospect is an odds-and-ends collection of short stories and essays by the late Vonnegut, unified by the theme of war, and by the author’s own experience as an American POW in Germany. His patriotism was near-fatally wounded when he experienced firsthand the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden. It was part of Private Vonnegut’s duties as a POW to exhume the bodies of women, children, and old people (the able-bodied men were fighting at the front). “We started on a small scale—here a leg, there an arm, and an occasional baby—but struck a mother lode before noon. We cut our way through a basement wall to discover a reeking hash of over one hundred human beings.” This traumatic experience took Vonnegut almost twenty years to fully process, and the result was not a work of realism, but dark absurdism, the American classic, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut’s harrowing essay on the Dresden bombing, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” is the highlight and centerpiece of this collection, and one of the best works of anti-war art I’ve read—something like the literary equivalent of Francisco Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series. This previously unpublished work is undated, but has the immediacy and urgency of an open wound. Dresden was the last major German city to escape bombing because there was nothing combative about it; it was a city of hospitals and refugees. Vonnegut, who hated his Nazi captors, nonetheless loved the city for its rich cultural past and pacific part in the war. “In February 1945, American bombers reduced this treasure to crushed stone and embers; disemboweled her with high-explosives and cremated her with incendiaries.”

Vonnegut goes on to write: “It is with some regret that I here besmirch the nobility of our airmen, but boys, you killed an appalling lot of women and children… We had to exhume their bodies and carry them to mass funeral pyres in the parks—so I know.”

Fortunes of war, right? Collateral damage. Vonnegut is quick to point out the pyrrhic nature of this ‘victory’. The bombers over Dresden missed their military targets (“they must have been briefed by a Ouija board”), and the end result? “Over one hundred thousand non-combatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days.” From an observation like that, one can understand why Vonnegut resorted to absurdism to tell the same story in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut was no pacifist (“Enemy military and industrial installations should have been blown flat, and woe unto those foolish enough to seek shelter near them”), and he loved his country, but the Dresden experience hurt him like a wife’s betrayal. “The killing of children—“Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us—can never be justified.” The experience also hardened his view of human nature. In a speech he gave last year, re-printed in this collection, Vonnegut said, with characteristic dark humor: “If Jesus were alive today, we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress.”

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