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So It Goes: Slaughterhouse-Five and Vengeance

(To read all our posts on A Week of Human Tragedy: The Firebombing of Dresden, please click here.)

It’s taken me a long time to understand Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death belongs in the (admittedly small) group of "the greatest war novels ever written". It can stand alongside The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, and From Here to Eternity as one of the top four World War II novels ever written. Spare, uncompromising, nihilistic, and anti-war, I genuinely love it, not just as a book of war, but as a work of art.

Like any great work of art or fine wine, it gets better with age. As a naive high school student with a distant understanding of life, I didn’t fully understand it. It tasted great, but its complexity was lost on me. I enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five more through its innate power, respecting the handful of images that stayed with me from the first time I read it to today. Like Paul Lazzaro’s monologue about killing a dog that wronged him:

“You should have seen what I did a to a dog one time...

“Son of a bitch bit me. So I got me some steak, and I got me the spring out of a clock. I cut that spring up in little pieces. I put points on the ends of the pieces. They were sharp as razor blades. I stuck 'em into the steak--way inside. And I went past where they had the dog tied up. He wanted to bite me again. I said to him, 'Come on, doggie--let's be friends. Let's not be enemies any more. I'm not mad.' He believed me...

“I threw him the steak. He swallowed it down in one big gulp. I waited around for ten minutes. Blood started coming out of his mouth. He started crying, and he rolled on the ground, as though the knives were on the outside of him instead of the inside of him. Then he tried to bite out his own insides. I laughed, and I said to him, 'You got the right idea now. Tear you own guts out, boy. That's me in there with all those knives.'"

Or the sadistic soldier Weary, with his trench knife and pornography, bullying Billy Pilgrim. Or the German soldiers then bullying the bully. Or Billy Pilgrim’s assassination at the end of the novel. Or the image that impacted me the most, the firebombing of Dresden.

I still don’t fully understand the Slaughterhouse-Five, but I don’t think anyone else does either. Between Wikipedia and Spark Notes, most critics believe that Slaughterhouse-Five’s main themes are fate, free will, the illusion of free will, fatalism, the destructiveness of war, and the illogical nature of human beings.

Yeah, that’s all in there, but it’s not what it’s about.

Slaughterhouse-Five is about vengeance.

If you look at all the images that clung to my mind like a child clings to its mother, they are all about revenge. Lazzaro kills the dog who wronged him, and later assassinates Billy Pilgrim for wronging him.  Weary punishes Pilgrim for almost getting them killed. The Germans bully Weary for being on the wrong side of the war. The Germans shoot “poor old Edgar Derby” for the same reason.

And of course, we bombed Dresden because the Germans destroyed the city of Coventry.

Vengeance is a festering, corrupting wound, that pollutes the soul and the person. If there is one villain in Slaughterhouse-Five--and there really isn’t a villain in Slaughterhouse-Five--it’s Lazzaro. And you pity him more than you fear him.

The real villains of Slaughterhouse-Five, the officers who ordered the Dresden bombings, exist off-screen. Instead Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, a Harvard historian who defends the Dresden bombings with the pat, sorry excuse that “It had to be done...That’s war,” represents this feeling. He goes on to pity the bombers more than the civilians.

War is futile, only because vengeance is futile. Instead of applying “So it goes” (Slaughterhouse-Five’s magic three words that occur after every death in the novel) to death’s inevitability, we should apply “So it goes” to those who trespass against us.

Maybe Slaughterhouse-Five is really about forgiveness, because vengeance, like Dresden, makes no sense when you actually think about it. It feels right, but it isn’t.