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January 10, 2011 / Infinite Tasks

Slaughterhouse-Five and the Philosophy of War

During the Spring 2011 semester, I will be co-teaching a course – for the very first time in over fifteen years of teaching. Keally McBride and I will be doing a course called the Philosophy and Politics of Peace and War. Among the books we are reading is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

It isn’t entirely clear to me what made me feel strongly about including it on the syllabus except that it affected me profoundly when I first read it, at a college age (perhaps 20). And so, I’ve been trying to think of a useful framework for discussion of the book, especially as it relates to the other primary texts being examined in the course: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, Carolyn Nordstrom’s Shadows of War, Jurgen Habermas & Jacques Derrida’s Philosophy in a Time of Terror, and Mike Davis’s Buda’s Wagon.  Nordstrom’s book, which is new to me, provides a very interesting view of the “il/licit” and “in/formal” economies and relationships that constitute social networks and conditions of possibility for war, apart from the (often remote) declarations of states and the specific behaviors of troops and military leaders.

As she puts it,

[I]f a soldier fights in a battle, that is definitely war. But if a soldier goes home and interacts with family and friends, business partners and enemies, this must also be recognized as constituting part of war’s reality. If he loots civilians because he has a gun, or donates books and help to war orphans, it is part of the war. …  If his sister’s ex-husband’s cousin, a seamstress, lives in a town a thousand kilometers away that is bombed, that is part of the war story, as are all the stories of the civilians maimed and killed in the attack, the pilots who flew the bombing run, the industries that supplied the planes and the fuel and the maps, … [and so on]. (p. 52)

Norstrom’s task is to put together a meaningful tapestry of these relationships, including the relief pilots whose planes are commandeered by powerful businessmen to move private trade stocks; the bankers who assist in turning hard currency, used for sales of munitions, food, and medicine, into recognizable international curencies; and even 9-year old Angolan cigarette sellers, working on advance and commission.  There is no hard and fast line, Nordstrom argues, between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” transactions, and the development of in/formal economies has in fact been crucial to the creation of stable state regimes.

This kind of analysis recalls to us the more-than-one hundred repetitions of “So it goes…” in Vonnegut’s barely two hundred page text.  “So it goes” is used for any death, or deaths, mentioned.  This includes, of course, the 130,000 killed in a single night in the Dresden firebombing, to Billy Pilgrim’s wife Valencia’s asphyxiation on the way to the hospital after Billy has survived a plane crash, to the dead animals who grease the axles of the cart used by Billy and Edgar Derby after the Russians occupy Dresden.  Written in Vonnegut’s sparse prose, all of the deaths are related in their qualities of absolute purposelessness, interdependence, and heart-wrenching fatalism.

Vonnegut’s pure fatalism is buttressed by the classic portrayal of four-dimensional space-time that Billy Pilgrim learns from the Trafalmadorians.  The Trafalmadorians do not experience time in a linear fashion, but all at once.  This fatalism, then, is also a form of consolation, since any awful condition of a person co-exists with their happiness or peace at many other times, all of which exist (in the sense of being actually present events, not merely possible or remembered events) unchangingly.

“When a Trafalmadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in many other moments.” (p.27)

This leads to one of the greatest descriptions of four-dimensionalism ever:

Tralfamadorians … can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.  And Trafalmadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,” says Billy Pilgrim. (p. 87)

I surmise that one of the ideas conveyed in Slaughterhouse-Five is that War and Time have a kind of essential relationship or similarity.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that War = Time, War nonetheless expresses an indistinctness that enables it to lay over and impinge every human experience in such a way that neither past nor future exist, only War itself, perpetually/infinitely.  Or, put another way, war and peace are merely two connected parts of the human millipede, and can be viewed co-presently if correctly understood.

Nordstrom understands this, at least to the extent that she sees war as an assault on both future and past, an attempt to do away with non-concurrent temporality. In a discussion of novelist Bao Lin, she notes:

Bao carries us into a world where violence disrupts the taken-for-granted; the timelines between yesterday and today, the immediate and the eternal. Time itself becomes a casualty of war, one that has serious repercussions. Bao captures a further truth of people’s lives in battlezones that I have heard people speak of in every war I have worked in. That concerns the ability of war to destroy the future. (p. 65)

Vonnegut, in his first autobiographical chapter, calls Slaughterhouse-Five a “failure,” but it is precisely in its failures that its greatness consists. It has no narrative arc, and the planned climax – the execution of Edgar Derby – is a mere sentence, disjoined like everything else from the circumstances or from any possible logic that could tie it to a greater meaning. Vonnegut refuses to tell a story that can make meaning out of war, or out of death. It is pure chance, chaos, and randomness, and even the Trafalmadorians, able to see all moments in time, do not attempt to sum up the moral or political significance of anything. Everything is, precisely as it is, in its surfaces. Nordstrom again:

But in war, in the face of ongoing violence, the future itself becomes a casualty. Crops are destroyed, children killed, stories rendered meaningless, laughter silenced by grief and terror.  Planting crops, making families, telling stories all give life its measure of certainty. War disrupts this certainty. And this lack of certainty disrupts a sense of the future. Planting crops may not produce food, getting pregnant may not produce a family, stories may not produce useful wisdom. (p. 66)

The jarring transitions that an “unstuck in time” Billy Pilgrim undergoes, the fact that not all of the circumstances he faces are ones of misery, that moments of happiness and peace co-exist inscrutably with the most horrible human-made disasters all at the same time (there is no time) – these all seem to me just about right on target in conveying the absurdity of human reality. Slaughterhouse-Five is, explicitly, an anti-war book. But it is not the usual sort, or the kind of political or humanitarian analysis that one finds in periodicals or books or radio shows of the “usual suspects.” All that Vonnegut can really put forward is this:

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. (p. 19)

After all my own investigations these many years, into politics, philosophy, history, religion, I doubt that I have much more to contribute than that. When the course begins, I will be thinking more about the relationship between War and Time in Slaughterhouse-Five, and perhaps the more interesting bits of this will show up here, later this spring.

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