Tag Archives: war

Reading: Part 3 – Slaughterhouse-Five

I must make a confession: I read this book in one go from start to finish, and I’m fairly convinced that it’s a triumph. So I’m making a note here. Great success? </lameportaljoke>

The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former (well, sort of, you’ll see) prisoner of war who has become unstuck in time. His consciousness flicks about through his life, from his experiences being captured at the Battle of the Bulge through to the firebombing of Dresden, his abduction by aliens, the moment of his death, and every moment in-between.

It’s also semi-autobiographical, as Vonnegut makes a point of mentioning that he was also present during the war, and many of the details of Billy’s life match the author’s own biography.

The book is a meditation on death, time, war, of the correlations between moments “stuck in amber”. It’s such a great book that I feel inadequate to be reviewing it, because I don’t have the tools to fully appreciate what has been done.

The little touches are incredible – the book follows the story of Billy Pilgrim’s experience in the war, interrupted by the random splinters of the rest of his life, and it’s filled with echoes of other moments, phrases repeated, evocative symmetries.

Every time someone dies, or death is mentioned, the phrase “so it goes” is repeated, focusing your mind on the death itself. The book enumerates the cruelties of the war, men glorifying and justifying the firebombing, or soap and candles made from the fat of dead Jews and gays and gypsies.

It is at once a condemnation of war and an admission that war is inevitable, that death will be dealt by natural causes, or an act of revenge, by atomic bomb or by firebomb, but that death will always be there, waiting at the end of our allotted years, our single thread spun out across eternity; we just have to think of the nice parts of the thread.

I feel almost compelled to compare this book with Illium; partly because they are at least nominally in the same genre. There is honestly no comparison. Illium wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve as a badge of honour; Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of literature in its own right, not a trashy space-opera with illusions of grandeur.

My Fellow People

In today’s Observer there was a leaflet from Amnesty International which used a knife and two hand grenades to form an image of a rather definitive part of the male anatomy, with the headline “Rape: Weapon of War”

Inside were witness accounts of how systematic rape is used to terrorize civillian communities. It makes for very uncomfortable reading.

The rest of the paper too is filled with generally terrible stories of things that are happening all over the world; child soldiers in Sri Lanka, a 17-year old Afghan girl stamped, suffocated and stabbed to death by her father for being infatuated with a British soldier.

Here in the West it’s easy to live our comfortable lives making mildly sexist “do the washing up”-style jokes and forget that in many parts of the world women are treated as little more than property, with little regard for their essential humanity; that our joking in a way trivializes a serious problem, and that even here women can still face descrimination.

It doesn’t just bother me that terrible things happen in the world, it bothers me that people actively keep the world this way; that ultimately there are people who are responsible for the terrible things they do to other people. Do any of those soldiers feel remorse for the rape? I know that the Afghan father feels no remorse for murdering his daughter; he says any Muslim father who honours his religion should do the same.

It would be easy to criticize Islam or any other of the religions; for instance the crimes of the Catholic Church are particularly terrible. The truth is that it seems to be a awful human tendency to believe that there are things more important than our common humanity, be they things as weighty as religion and nationality, or as trivial as the football team you support.

The Roma “ultras” stab opposing fans in the buttocks, Nigerian Muslims burned Nigerian Christians to death over the Danish cartoons. In the First World War the two sides stood only a few tens of meters of mud apart trying to kill each other for four years, wasting hundreds of thousands of lives.

The only moment of any of that which gives me hope is the Christmas truce, where both sides got up out of the Trenches, and played football together; a spontaneous outbreak of peace. It only goes to throw the pointlessness of the rest of that war into horribly sharp relief.

I don’t understand. I wish I did. For now, joining Amnesty seems like it might be a start.