Complacency to Catastrophe

by David Hartsough (2012-04-18)

A paper written in a high school British Literature class about the satire in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

Wars cause great suffering and hardship as well as many long-lasting consequences such as loss of life, collapsing of nations, and lingering scars and hatred (Vogele 23-25). Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" states that no one who has actually seen the atrocities of war would try to glorify it through the old lie, "It is sweet and right to die for your country" (Owen 1). In 1969, another writer, Kurt Vonnegut, decided to use satire instead of poetry to lampoon the unquestioning acceptance of war (Brown 173). Satire is an effective weapon against the status quo because it "jars us out of complacence into a pleasantly shocked realization that many of the values we unquestioningly accept are false" (Feinberg 15-16). The satire in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five acknowledges the inevitability of war but also condemns complacent acceptance of the destruction it brings.

"Among humans, warfare is so ubiquitous and historically commonplace that we are often tempted to attribute to it some innate predisposition for slaughter" (Ehrenreich 54). Many people claim that it is in our "human nature" to go to war and that the human species is violent and warlike and there is nothing we can do about it (Spencer 180). With this attitude civilians seem to accept whatever the price of war has been or will be as "the price of progress" (Berry 76). People are told that "violent conflict is inevitable and in some cases necessary" (Spencer 177). They then believe that war is eternally a "part of the human condition" (Hansen 183). Dane Spencer sums up this civilian attitude:

So, civilians agree to support the military in promise that the war will not touch them. … [T]hese civilians have been convinced that their experts have exhausted all other diplomatic avenues and have come up empty handed. The leaders come back to say 'Sorry, war is inevitable. Prepare for war,' and the civilians feel they have no other choice. (179-80)

Modern war has "made it impossible to kill 'combatants' without killing 'noncombatants'" (Berry 72). "From WWII to 2000 we have seen 85.6 million killed, with 63% of those being civilian (54 million)" (Spencer 178). Brian Carnell says, "Everyone who accepts some sort of just war theory acknowledges that civilians are going to be killed inadvertently in war" (129). "Military scholars say that war and its resulting violence on a civilian population is unavoidable. … While any military is good at killing, it is inept at not targeting civilians" (Spencer 177). When young people are killed or crippled in war, "these 'casualties' are so widely distributed among our population" that they are hardly noticed; "the costs of war "are 'externalized' as 'acceptable losses'" (Berry 75). "Some people are quick to defend the notion that there is nothing to be done about civilian death and destruction caused by violent conflict" (Spencer 177).

"This type of unquestioning acceptance of the status quo leads to a bombing of Dresden or to a slaughter of the Jews, and it is this type of philosophy which Vonnegut is opposed" (Brown 174). Therefore, Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five as a satire because satire "ridicules man's naïve acceptance of individuals and institutions at face value" (Feinberg 3). "The best satire … seeks to create a shock of recognition and to make vice repulsive so that the vice will be expunged from the person or society under attack" (Harris 1). Slaughterhouse-Five is mostly about Dresden (Vonnegut 3; ch. 1). Satirists "write about, and criticize, the things they know best. When a person gets to know any subject well, he becomes aware of the imperfections beneath its superficial excellences" (Feinberg 37). This can certainly be said about Vonnegut since he was a POW quartered in the cellar of a slaughterhouse in Dresden when it was fire-bombed (Bloom 180).

Since the main character in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, witnesses "the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden," he tries to reinvent himself and his universe through the help of science fiction (101; ch. 5). Billy "tries to develop new lies to live his life; but in his attempt, he creates the Tralfamadorians and their philosophy" (Brown 175). Billy experiences so much death and hostility to the human individual that he takes refuge in a fantasy featuring aliens called Tralfamadorians, a means by which he attempts to cope with his tormented past and unbearable present (Ferguson 23). "His development of the Tralfamadorians is a self-defense mechanism to deal with the horrors he saw at the bombing of Dresden" (Brown 175).

The Tralfamadorians say, "All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is" (85-86; ch. 4). They go on to Kevin Brown best explains how they teach Billy a philosophy of passive acceptance:

Since everything simply is, one does not question what happens or believe that one could change the course of events. … They teach him that one should not look for reasons why things happen; he or she should simply allow them to happen. (173)

The Tralfamadorians say they can't do anything about the end of the universe or the horrible wars they have, so they ignore them (117; ch. 5). "All satire is exaggeration. … By distorting accepted values, exaggeration makes them seem ludicrous" (Feinberg 105). The Tralfamadorians believe a dead person is only in a bad condition in that particular moment, so they and Billy only say "So it goes" upon hearing about a death (27; ch. 2). Vonnegut exaggerates complacent acceptance of war through the Tralfamadorians whose "philosophy denies the human capability to prevent any event. … By merely accepting the end of the universe and any other catastrophe, they deny human potential for change" (Brown 173). The Tralfamadorians tell Billy, "That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones" (117; ch. 5). The satirist exaggerates and overemphasizes human flaws in order to make the complacent oppose and expunge corruption (Harris 6).

When Billy asks the Tralfamadorians, "Why me?" they reply, "That is a very Earthling question to ask Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything?" (76-77; ch. 4). "Vonnegut further mocks the idea of unquestioning acceptance by connecting the Tralfamadorian philosophy with the philosophy of the Germans" (Brown 174). An astonished American POW asks, "Why me?" after a German guard hauls him out of ranks and knocks him down, so the German answers him saying, "Vy you? Vy anybody?" (91; ch. 5). "Vonnegut further criticizes Billy's philosophy by presenting him as self-deluded and possibly insane" (Brown 174). Sometimes satirists use insanity to deride (Harris 6). "Vonnegut distances himself from Pilgrim by showing the hazards of Pilgrim's philosophy and by presenting Pilgrim as a questionable, if not unreliable, narrator" (Brown 176). Vonnegut likely chose the name Billy because satirists sometimes use names of characters to indicate that they are "not attempting to portray rounded individuals" (Feinberg 235) Later again in the novel, Vonnegut ridicules foolish complacency by connecting the Tralfamadorian philosophy to Rumfoord's defense of the bombing of Dresden (Brown 174). Rumfoord tells Billy that the destruction of Dresden had to be done and says, "That's war." (198; ch. 9).

Slaughterhouse-Five announces itself as a Tralfamadorian text (Bényei 76). In Tralfamadorian books, there is "no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects" (88; ch. 5). "Plot is rarely the most important component of a satire. … Actually, in most satires it does not particularly matter in what order the events take place" (Feinberg 226). "Slaughterhouse-Five is constructed out of tiny scraps of story" (Bényei 76). Some satirists string together a series of independent sections, achieving a tenuous cohesiveness by having one character involved in them" (Feinberg 228). "Billy Pilgrim is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next," and, throughout the book, the reader follows Billy through random snippets of his life (23; ch. 2). Slaughterhouse-Five, being a Tralfamadorian text, seems to support the Tralfamadorian philosophy and voice their views (Brown 175).

Satire almost always pretends to be something other than it really is, and sometimes books such as Slaughterhouse-Five succeed "so well that readers miss the satiric intention entirely" (Feinberg 3). Critics who argue that Vonnegut is advocating a passive stance in view of the horrors of the world not only misinterpret the meaning behind his novel but also reverse it (Brown 175). Vonnegut believes that wars are as easy to stop as glaciers and that "even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death" (3-4; ch. 1). Brown elaborates:

This interchange has been seen as a confirmation of the passive acceptance of wars and other atrocities; however, Vonnegut is merely viewing the situation realistically. … Vonnegut knows that one book is not going to end wars, and even if it did, there would still be death. (176)

In the last chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut reveals the true message of his satire: "If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true … I am not overjoyed" (211; ch. 10).

Works Cited

Bényei, Tamás. "Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction--The Case of Kurt Vonnegut." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 11.4(2001): 432-53. Rpt. in Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Harold Bloom. New ed. New York: Infobase, 2009. 65-86. Print.

Berry, Wendell. "War Does Not Maintain Peace or Promote Freedom." War: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2005. 71-79. Print. Opposing Viewpoints Series (Unnumbered). Rpt. of "The Failure of War." YES! Magazine (Winter 2001-2002).

Brown, Kevin. "'A Launching Pad of Belief': Kurt Vonnegut and Postmodern Humor." Studies in American Humor 3.14(2006): 47-54. Rpt. in Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Harold Bloom. New ed. New York: Infobase, 2009. 171-78. Print

Carnell, Brian. "Civilians Should Not Be Targeted to Spare Combatants." War: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2005. 128-31. Print. Opposing Viewpoints Series (Unnumbered). Rpt. of "Is It Okay to Intentionally Kill Civilians?" Brian.Carnell.com, 29 April 2002.

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Feinberg, Leonard. Introduction to Satire. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1967. Print.

Ferguson, Oliver W. "History and State: Leon Trout's Double Narrative in Galápagos." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40.3(Spring 1999): 230-38. Rpt. in Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Harold Bloom. New ed. New York: Infobase, 2009. 19-28. Print.

Hansen, Victor Davis. "War Cannot Be Prevented." War: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2005. 182-89. Print. Opposing Viewpoints Series (Unnumbered). Rpt. of "War Will Be War; No Matter the Era, No Matter the Weapons, the Same Old Hell." National Review 54(2002).

Harris, Robert. "The Purpose and Method of Satire." VirtualSalt. 22 November 2010. Web. 4 Feb. 2012.

Owen, Wilfred. "Dulce Et Decorum Est."_ Emory University--English Department_. Emory University. Web. 18 April 2012.

Spenser, Dane. "War Can Be Prevented." War: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2005. 176-81. Print. Opposing Viewpoints Series (Unnumbered). Rpt. of "The Myth of Peace." WagingPeace.org, 6 May 2002.

Vogele, William B. "War." The World Book Encyclopedia. 2010. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. 1969. New York: Dell, 1991. Print.