To celebrate Banned Books Week, a dedicated young librarian at a local university invited students, faculty, and staff to participate in the Banned Books Read-Out — held yesterday in two sessions (11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. & 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., campus amphitheater) across from the university library. In addition to a display of banned books that grace the library’s lobby, a list of one hundred banned books was provided for those wishing to devote ten minutes of their time to participate in this noble endeavor.
For my ten minutes, I selected Kurt Vonnegut’s acclaimed Slaughterhouse Five for the following reasons: 1. Since the end of WWII the U.S. has waged war on the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and at least half a dozen more countries around the globe. 2 Ken Burn’s Vietnam documentary has, at long last, forced us to engage in some serious soul searching, and a much needed conversation about the many lies, mistakes, and atrocities of this war, thus providing an opportunity to reach out to the hundreds of thousands who served in Vietnam as well as those who opposed the war and helped bring it to an end. 3. The U.S. is still using its superior military power, a disproportionate, scorch earth power that incinerates thousands of precious lives in faraway lands, and a power that pulverizes entire nation states. 4. Recent threats of unleashing the “fire and fury” of nuclear weaponry poses a grave danger to humanity. 5. Innocent civilians seem to always be in the sights of machine guns, missiles, and now, drones and MOABs . 6. Those who order soldiers to wade into the hades of military adventures do so under the guise of national security; waging a war is, after all, a pernicious flag-waving pathway to furthering political careers; gullible voters continue to buy into war snake oil. 7. And finally, I have seen firsthand the ravages of war and the devastating effects wars have had on individuals, communities, nations, and regions. I have inherited my mother’s Quaker values.
My ten minutes of reading were dedicated to Robert Pillsbury and Randall Obrien, two very dear friends who served honorably in Vietnam, to the memory of Steve Epperson, a college classmate whose name is inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington, DC, and barely 30 feet from this amphitheater here on this campus, and to the countless others who served and continue to do so.
What follows are passages quoted directly from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Delacorte Press, 1969, and are presented, in sequential order, exactly as they appear in this classic work.
Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”
“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead.’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.
The war in Europe had been over for a couple of weeks. We [allied prisoners of war] were formed in ranks [as bombing began].
[O’Hare, reading from an account about the Children’s Crusades] History in her solemn page informs us that the crusaders were but ignorant and savage men, that their motives were those of bigotry unmitigated, and that their pathway was one of blood and tears. Romance, on the other hand, dilates upon their piety and heroism, and portrays, in her most glowing and impassioned hues, their virtue and magnanimity, the imperishable honor they acquired for themselves, and the great services they rendered to Christianity…. Now what was the grand result of all these struggles? Europe expended millions of her treasures, and the blood of two million of her people; and a handful of quarrelsome knights retained possession of Palestine for about one hundred years. …The devastation of Dresden was boundless.
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.
The speaker at the Lions Club meeting was a major in the Marines. He said that Americans had no choice but to keep fighting in Vietnam until they achieved victory or until the Communists realized that they could not force their way of life on weak countries. The major had been there on two separate tours of duty. He told of many terrible and many wonderful things he had seen. He was in favor of increased bombings, of bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason.
The Americans [prisoners of war in Dresden] were taken to the fifth building inside the gate. It was a one-story cement-block cube with sliding doors in front and back. It had been built as a shelter for pigs about to be butchered. Now it was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war. There were bunks in there, and two potbellied stoves and a water tap.
There was a big number over the door of the building. The number was five. Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city [Dresden]. Their address was this : “Schlachthof-fnf.” Schlachthof meant slaughterhouse. Fṻnf was good old five.
The Americans [prisoners of war] and their guards took shelter in an echoing meat locker which was hollowed out in living rock under the slaughterhouse.
American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. … The planes sprayed [four U.S. prisoners of war] with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. And so it goes.
The idea was to hasten the war.
The blind inn-keeper and his sighted wife … knew that Dresden was safe. Those with eyes had seen it burn and burn, understood that they were at the edge of the desert now.
At each road intersection Billy’s group was joined by more Americans with their hands on top of their haloed heads. Billy had smiles for them all. They were moving like water, downhill all the time, and they flowed at last to a main highway on a valley’s floor. Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans. Tens of thousands of Americans shuffled eastward, their hands clasped on top of their heads. They sighed and groaned.
Billy and his group joined the river of humiliation, and the late afternoon sun came out from the clouds. The Americans didn’t have the road to themselves. The westbound lane boiled and boomed with vehicles which were rushing German reserves to the front.
Derby told them he was forty-five, which was two years older than the colonel. The[British] colonel said that the other Americans had all shaved now, that Billy and Derby were the only two still with beards. And he said, “You know- we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘My God, my God-‘ I said to myself, ‘It’s the Children’s Crusade.’”
The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The boxcar doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim.
Every other big city in Germany had been bombed and burned ferociously. Dresden had not suffered so much as a cracked windowpane. Sirens went off every day, screamed like hell, and people went down into cellars and listened to radios there. The planes were always bound for someplace else-Leipzig, Chemnitz, Plauen, places like that. So it goes.
Steam radiators still whistled cheerily in Dresden. Streetcars clanged. Telephones rang and were answered. Lights went on and off when switches were clicked. There were theaters and restaurants. There was a zoo. The principal enterprises of the city were medicine and food-processing and the making of cigarettes.
The eight ridiculous Dresdeners ascertained that these hundred ridiculous creatures really were American fighting men fresh from the front. They smiled, and then they laughed. Their terror evaporated. There was nothing to be afraid of. Here were more crippled human beings, more fools like themselves. Here was light opera.
The air-raid sirens of Dresden howled mournfully. The Americans and their guards and Campbell took shelter in an echoing meat locker which was hollowed in living rock under the slaughterhouse. There was an iron staircase with iron doors at the top and bottom.
Nothing happened that night. It was the next night that about one hundred and thirty thousand people in Dresden would die.
So Lily sat down and pretended to read the Truman thing, which went like this:
Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam,” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.
The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many-fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production, and even more powerful forms are in development.
It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power had been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.
Before 1939, it was the accepted belief of scientists that it was theoretically possible to release atomic energy. But nobody knew any practical method of doing it. By 1942, however, we knew that the Germans were working feverishly to find a way to add atomic energy to all the other engines of war with which they hoped to enslave the world. But they failed. We may be grateful to Providence that the Germans got the V-1’s and V-
2’s late and in limited quantities and even more grateful that they did not get the atomic bomb at all.
The battle of the laboratories held fateful risks for us as well as the battles of the air, land and sea, and we have now won the battle of the laboratories as we have won the other battles.
We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city, said Harry Truman.
That the bombing of Dresden was a great tragedy none can deny. That it was really a military necessity few, after reading this book will believe. It was one of those terrible things that sometimes happen in wartime, brought about by an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Those who approved it were neither wicked nor cruel, though it may well be that they were too remote from the harsh realities of war to understand fully the appalling destructive power of air bombardment in the spring of 1945.
The advocates of nuclear disarmament seem to believe that, if they could achieve their aim, war would become tolerable and decent. They would do well to read this book and ponder the fate of Dresden, where 135,000 people died as the result of an air attack with conventional weapons. On the night of March 9th, 1945, an air attack on Tokyo by American heavy bombers, using incendiary and high explosive bombs, caused the death of 83,793 people. The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 71,379 people.
A German soldier with a flashlight went down into the darkness was gone a long time. When he finally came back, he told a superior on the rim of the hole that there were dozens of bodies down there. They were sitting on benches. They were unmarked.
There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.
Over the years several CounterPunchers have written eloquent essays about this malevolent crime against humanity as a result of three days of dropping over 4,000 tons of incendiary/phosphorous bombs . Throughout his book Vonnegut used (especially after scenes of carnage and death) the phrase “So it goes” as a rhetorical leitmotif.
And “so it goes.” And Goes, and Goes, and Goes!!!