Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a very important book with a very important message. As children we study the history of wars in school, we dissect and examine the extensive and cruel horrors that humans have subjected each other to. We ask questions like “what were the main causes of this war?” and “what important factors led up to that particular event?”. We often say that it’s a necessity to learn from history’s mistakes and great failures, so that we may never make them again.

I don’t deny that. It’s imperative that we understand the causes and effects that these wars have had, to be shocked and horrified by the massacres and destruction they left behind. This knowledge equips us with the inclination to be better, to move forward favouring diplomacy over conflict. However, this historian-approved approach to looking at the past, of seeking answers, connecting dots and using them to draw conclusions is embedded with a hidden flaw: it fails to acknowledge the idea that at the end of the day, there is no way to explain war. War is a senseless, confusing, chaotic thing. What was once upon a time deemed to be the ultimate apotheosis of national glory and pride revealed itself to be nothing more than a blood-splattered sophism, a tragedy scribbled over and over and over again into history’s pages. People dying by the millions over imagined boundaries between themselves and other people, people using these illusions of “us” and โ€œthem” to justify slaughter. None of this is new, of course: it is only knowledge that must be continually repeated, as often as it can, because it is a fact that will never stop being relevant or true.

What Vonnegut does with Slaughterhouse Five is to present war as the pointless, absurd thing that it is. As a POW who was there during the infamous firestorm of Dresden (a city with zero military significance that was still completely obliterated by Allied bombing), he writes with sharp honesty and insight. So much in these pages give a sense of the author scrambling to make sense of what he saw out there. The bizarre plot points, while odd and bewildering at first, are an incredible device he uses to show how all that suffering can erode away at a person. Itโ€™s a profound glimpse into the heartbreaking reality of PTSD. All these years later, people are still horrified by the aftermath of that event, and the explanation that it was necessary to bring the war to an end or demoralize the Germans is no longer enough to justify what happened. Events like the destruction of Dresden are not victories for anybody involved at all. They’re just endings. Not of wars or morales or violence, but of something even more fragile still – the ending of human lives. Their stories, their dreams and memories and adventures. Tens of thousands of sparkling little threads in this cloth of humanity, ripped out overnight. Reduced, as Vonnegut succinctly puts it, to the โ€œlistless playthings of enormous forcesโ€.

Yes, he chooses to discuss these important concepts rather uniquely in this avant-garde and wonderfully strange novel. But Slaughterhouse Five does exactly what it’s meant to do, and does it exceedingly well: it forces us to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror of history; not only to stare at the monsters that we manage to be, but also to notice the painfully delicate, human things we all are underneath.

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