Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Armageddon In Retrospect.

When Kurt Vonnegut died last April, at the age of 84, America lost one of its greatest living writers, leaving Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, and Toni Morrison to carry on without him. His body of work - Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Man Without a Country, and most memorably, Slaughterhouse Five - all mastered the seemingly impossible task of combining human tragedy with light-hearted optimism and humor, and his words glue themselves to the mind.

Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut's masterpiece, touched the closest to his memories as a young prisoner of war in WWII, where he survived the controversial firebombing of Dresden, a U.S. and British air raid that is estimated to have killed between 25,000-40,000 people, mostly female civilians and children. Vonnegut's unit was held in captivity in an underground meat locker in a former slaughterhouse, Schlachthof-Fünf. This turned out to be one of the safest places in town. Slaughterhouse Five is a loosely structured science fiction novel whose protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time and travels to various points in his life as a way of dealing with the emotional impact of having survived the bombs dropped by his own allies. The novel was also the way Vonnegut himself dealt with the emotional fallout of being a survivor.

Armageddon In Retrospect is Vonnegut's last, posthumous work, and features previously unpublished essays, stories, letters, and his last speech given at the age of eighty-two.

In these essays and letters, Vonnegut was able to put Billy Pilgrim aside and delve more deeply into the bombing of Dresden and the impact it had on him.

Vonnegut's son Mark, a pediatrician and novelist, wrote in the introduction that the war in Iraq broke his heart, and in one of his essays angrily remarks, "When does all the hate end? Never."

The pieces in Armageddon In Retrospect revolve mostly around war and peace, and his direct experience as a young soldier in Dresden.

The collection begins with a letter written by a 23-year-old Vonnegut to his father on May 29th, 1945. He had been listed as "missing in action," and this was the first word his parents had received either from or about him for 6 months.

I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxembourg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up.

He goes on to describe being marched 60 miles with no food or water, to be crammed into a cattle car and taken to prison in Dresden. They were released from the cattle car after 12 days. As for the bombing, Vonnegut merely says,

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty four hours and destroyed all of Dresden -- possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

In his following essay Wailing in the Streets, Vonnegut digs in a little deeper, writing about his forced labor in the aftermath, dragging the charred corpses of women, old men, and children out of the remains of the buildings, and about the American planes that flew overhead the next day, raining leaflets down on the survivors that read, "To the people of Dresden: We were forced to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic your railroad facilities have been carrying."

The railroads were repaired and running at full speed ahead within 48 hours.

The carnage of the once beautiful city, a city "so anti-Nazi Hitler visited it but twice during his whole reign," and his forced work as damage repair, solidified his views against war.

Burned alive, suffocated, crushed - men, women, and children indiscriminately killed. For all the sublimity of the cause for which we fought, we surely created a Belsen of our own. The method was impersonal, but the result was equally cruel and heartless. That, I am afraid, is a sickening truth.

The short stories in Armageddon come at the follies of war from different angles. In "Great Day," Vonnegut satirizes the tendency of man to wage war, regardless of truth or reason. In "Happy Birthday, 1951," the same approach is told from a different angle, as an old man tries to instill in a little boy a love for peace, with disappointing results. Others, such as "Brighten Up," and "Spoils," observe the behavior of American prisoners, in particular the ones who manage to turn a profit in the labor camp at the expense of their fellow man.

In other stories, the narrative is not war per se, but the stories certainly make a strong analogies for it. "Unicorn Trap" explores the abuse of power and how the poor are forced into making soul-crushing choices in order to survive, and "Unknown Soldier," where a grieving father tells of the loss of his infant daughter, born at midnight on New Year's Eve. Her birth is hyped and she is showered with gifts and scholarships, only to be neglected and forgotten upon her death by the same press that adored her.

Between the essays are sketches drawn by Vonnegut, little doodles serving as dividers.

Taken as a whole, this posthumous collection eloquently explains why George and Dick's Excellent Iraq Adventure broke Vonnegut's heart. Having had to clean up the bomb-strewn bodies in an Allied-destroyed city, during a war in which our service were needed to stop a monster, it must have hit Vonnegut particularly hard to imagine cleaning up bits and pieces of children torn apart in the name of a cheap lie.

For any Vonnegut fan, Armageddon In Retrospect
, rounds out the man's life and clarifies many of his views and his spirit. For those who have not read his work, it is a decent enough introduction. But for Pete's sake, go out right now and pick up Slaughterhouse Five.

You don't want to be caught dead not having read it.


Armageddon In Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut
April 2008 by Putnam
Hardcover, 240pp
ISBN: 0399155082

| StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!