Total Effects of Total War

Inevitable Destruction


Kurt Vonnegut speaks to his audience directly in chapter one before he introduces his readers to Billy Pilgrim, a man unstuck in time. Vonnegut’s audience is the young and the old alike, the rich and the poor, the happy and the depressed, because war affects us all. Vonnegut is explaining the process he experiences in order to write Slaughterhouse Five, and the time appears to be around 1969 when the book was published, but the main event of chapter one revolves around Vonnegut’s visit to an old war friend in 1964, years after Vonnegut returns home for World War Two. The first chapter is primarily set in New York at the home of his friend, Bernard V. O’Hare. The setting changes throughout chapter one. Vonnegut travels in time. He explains his past. He contemplates war. He makes some promises. Vonnegut begins the chapter by describing a cab driver he met in Dresden with O’Hare. Vonnegut then moves away from this incident and explains his difficulties in writing Slaughterhouse Five. After a lot of time and thought, a visit to an old friend, a wife and children, and scrapped paper, he is finally able to produce his “famous Dresden book” (Vonnegut 4). He then tells the reader about his call to his war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, with whom he wishes to reminisce and remember the war and Dresden in hopes of making progress on his “famous Dresden book.” Vonnegut discusses one of his vain attempts to write his “‘anti-war’” book on wallpaper. This attempt fails, and Vonnegut jumps again to tell us about an experience in the war and about a beet field and a truck and an Englishman and an Eiffel tower. Vonnegut then shares how his life operates now and his obsession with old girlfriends and the telephone. When Vonnegut relays a story about death and how he is forced to call a dead man’s wife and break the news to her, his numbness to death and suffering is evident. Vonnegut then discusses his visit to Bernard V. O’Hare’s home in New York and their failed attempts to remember details from the war and Dresden. Bernard’s wife, Mary, is clearly angry with Vonnegut and his presence, and she finally admits that her anger stems from Hollywood’s construed portrayal of war. She is angered by the old men who fight in wars in the movies because “‘babies’” (Vonnegut 14) actually fought in World War Two. Vonnegut promises not to write a book with characters that could be played by older men. He tells her he will call the book “‘The Children’s Crusade’” (Vonnegut 15). He reads about Dresden that night. The city was beautiful before it was incinerated. So it goes. Vonnegut tells the readers what he told his publisher: “‘the book’…is so short and jumbled and jangled…” (19). Vonnegut writes that he told his sons not to become involved in massacres. He explains a “non-night” (20) that he had. He moves about in time again. He thinks his book is a failure and so on. In chapter one, Vonnegut speaks to his readers from a first person point of view in order to establish a relationship with his audience, a relationship based on personal details of his own life and the unveiling of personal struggles which we all experience. He explains his very intimate relationship with war which establishes his credibility. In an interview, Vonnegut remarked that it “took [him] a long time to realize this war was fought by children,” and this fact is certainly evident in chapter one since he did not consider World War Two a child’s fight until his encounter with Mary. When Vonnegut realizes that teenagers fought in this war, it changes his view of the war and his view of his book. Dresden was the largest massacre in the history of Europe, and Vonnegut wants to capture this event and “The Children’s Crusade” in his book. Slaughterhouse Five is a post modernist novel, and the peace after World War Two gave many artists and authors, including Vonnegut, time to reflect on war and society. The Korean and Vietnam Wars aroused strong war protests among Americans, and Vonnegut is certainly arguing against war and its effects on society, especially children. The prose of the post modernism era is marked by an increase in protest in general as society changes, and Vonnegut is protesting war and our deep obsession with war and the necessary buildup to prepare for war. Vonnegut’s style in the first chapter is straight forward and blunt. He nonchalantly relays events in the war and death, and the majority of his sentences are simple, like a child’s writing.

Syntax and Tone

In chapter one, Vonnegut develops a detached tone through disjointed syntax by juxtaposing very short and abrupt statements with more extensive and detailed structures, bluntly emphasizing Vonnegut’s more painful memories and confusion by contrasting the paratactic sentences with the less emotional contemplations of other sentences using polysyndeton. By using paratactic syntax, he distances himself from his audience through the lack of detailed analysis: “Not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima, for instance. I didn’t know that, either. There hadn’t been much publicity” (Vonnegut 10). This syntax mirrors Vonnegut’s perspective of war; war seems more simple to a society in which not everyone is directly involved, but the effects of war are much more complex and long lasting on the men engaged in the war than society realizes. As the short sentences built around asyndeton subsequently flow together, the overall syntax remains simple, but Vonnegut’s distaste for war is further revealed through the laundry listing of war’s detrimental impacts. Vonnegut’s somber and bleak tone is then emphasized as the audience begins to see how war complicated his view of life, thus complicating his endeavors to form the novel. Vonnegut’s diction illustrates the effects of war on children through the point of view of a child by using simple sentences and statements as a child would. He also criticizes the unrestricted extent of war in society; through a disjointed structure of isolated segments of text, he emphasizes his opposition to the myriad of society’s resources and people that are designated to warfare. Vonnegut is motivated by his own experiences of war to influence subsequent generations of children to not “take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee” (19). Vonnegut’s overwhelming use of short, simple sentences contrasted with the periodic appearance of extended sentences serves to develop his highly detached and bleak tone which strengthens his opposition to a society riveted by a militaristic objective.


In chapter one, Vonnegut explores the idea that war is inevitable. War perverts societies’ perspective on death. War takes away from a society’s humanity. Chapter one serves as a summary of the entire book; the first chapter introduces his audience to the style of his writing and blatantly speaks of different instances that will occur in the book to attract the reader’s attention. Vonnegut forms the first section of the chapter by only briefly mentioning, “One guy [getting] shot in Dresden for taking a teapot” (Vonnegut 1), to “Another guy [who] really did threaten to have his personal enemies be killed…after the war, to Vonnegut “really [going] back to Dresden with Guggenheim money in 1967” (1). Vonnegut uses little detail and mentions miniscule background information which suggests that he will further explain what will happen in both instances later on in the novel. “So it goes” is paired with every death, which potentially may be explained through many more instances of death appearing throughout the novel. He repeats the ideas of calling his old friends on the telephone and “My name is Yon Yonsen” and “baby fat”, which possibly implies that the novel is written in a loop, with the intention of reiterating significant events proposed throughout the book. Vonnegut throws new ideas at the audience near the end of the chapter from time travel to supernatural events to Billy Pilgrim, with the intent of suspending the audience’s complete understanding. It is evident to the audience that the novel will be one jangled, chronological timeline when Vonnegut mentions becoming “unstuck in time” (28). Looking at the human race and time from the perspective of extraterrestrials, the author is able to examine the effects of war on humanity. Vonnegut argues all of the negative impacts of war on society and that all of the effects are much more profound than society realizes. The underlying and detrimental effects of war on people, especially children, who engage in battle are simple on the surface but are in fact extremely complex.


Repetition through motifs, as these devices are unique to an author’s own craft, serves the purpose of illustrating the key points or messages of the entire text. Vonnegut’s use of the motif “so it goes” appears almost every time that an instance of death is mentioned in the story. This short phrase incorporates much of how Vonnegut wishes to portray his perception of death, or the view that he held during the war and the perspective of death that war generally creates for the people who are involved and the effects that this stance has on each person’s conscious. Being pushed into war desensitizes and toughens people, as Vonnegut explains, “World War Two had certainly made everybody very tough. … My boss [in Schenectady] was one of the toughest guys I ever hope to meet. He had been a lieutenant colonel in public relations in Baltimore” (10). People begin to view death without fear or shock or grief. Consequently, people lose some of their sense of humanity. The phrase also appears to support the author’s tactic of relating his story from the point of view of a child. Mentions of death occur often, but he refrains from describing any of these events in depth; instead, each instance of death ends simply and abruptly with “So it goes” (22). The apparent lack of excessive concern for death in any situation does not only reveal a loss of compassion but also seems to suggest that perhaps Vonnegut is not fully capable of grasping any profound aspect of death. Rather, the author maintains a child’s outlook of the matter. Since he entered the war as a child, the effects of war produced his combined view of death through an unaware and innocent child’s eyes and, at the same time, from an insensitive war veteran’s position. Vonnegut also remembers “[getting] drunk, and [driving his] wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone” when he introduces another motif phrase, “mustard gas and roses” (4). Through this motif, Vonnegut relates the lasting effects of war experiences. The scent of mustard gas will always be with him, and it is stronger when he is in certain moods, especially those in which he revisits memories of people and places in his life. He experienced war early in life, as a child, and so this scent now mingles with others and continuously taints his experiences in the present. The ironic combination of chemical weapons and flowers highlights the grave impact of the war upon his childhood and life which can be represented kindly and innocently by the roses. He may be able to hold onto the scent of roses, but he cannot escape the odor of mustard gas; the experiences of war will always be with him. It may also seem fitting that only a dog is not bothered by the smell of mustard gas and roses. This motif, much like the other, expresses, without elaborating upon, the profoundly bleak impacts upon humanity that are marked by warfare.

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