“Write what you know.” Isn’t that what they say? So, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about the firebombing of Dresden in World War II in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Each time I read this book, I am more impressed by it. His control of tone is wonderful – the simple, repetitive phrases that give it the air of a parodic gospel. The dark satire, restrained by a fatalistic humanism. The downright horror of it all.
He didn’t write about the Nazi destruction of the Jews – he didn’t witness that. He made no grand claims, other than that in the war, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were burned to a crisp in a city that had no military value. (Some have recently claimed that this was not true, but it certainly took them a while to make their arguments! See my post on Bomber Harris.) More people died there than in Hiroshima, but who’s counting? Is the body count all that matters?
The subtitle of the book is The Children’s Crusade, a reference to the fact that the American army was largely composed of boys, barely out of childhood, hastily dressed up and shipped overseas in uniform as GI Joes. For the most part, they were woefully unprepared, a point that is amplified in a brief historical book about the US war in northern Europe, The Boy’s Crusade by Paul Fussell. (He was there too.) They were fighting a desperate and seasoned killing machine led by experienced and ruthless officers fighting for their lives, the Nazi army.
There are a lot of things in this book that may have seemed very outré in 1971. His description of the American collaborator, Campbell and his tirades against US soldiers; the way the Germans treated the Russian POWs like animals to be worked to death – right next to the Americans and British; the incompetence and chaos of the Americans fighting – their poor equipment. Lots of things that don’t accord too well with our current mythology of The Greatest Generation either.
Of course, the book had added poignancy because it was published at a time with the specter of mass incineration was hanging over just about everyone.
Requiescat In Pace