The Tragedy of War by Kurt Vonnegut

By: Abbie Findley and Zach Miller

Children Fight the War

In Chapter 1 of Slaughterhouse-five, Vonnegut explains how he came to write the novel. As a man living in Cape Cod, in the late 1960’s, he tries to remember his days as a POW in Dresden so he can write his infamous anti-war novel. He’s often drunk late in the night, having the operator help him find old girlfriends, other veterans, past comrades. One night he calls up Bernard V. O’Hare, a man he was imprisoned with and is still good friends. He and O’Hare talk on the phone when O’Hare agrees to let him into his home so he can help Vonnegut write his book. He takes his daughter and a friend into New York to visit his friend and eventually Mary O’Hare comes into the kitchen in a rage. She gives him a purpose, a reason, to write. She inspires him with her anger about how young they were and how it was a children’s crusade; how she never wants to see her own children fighting so young. All of Mary’s words and Vonnegut’s thoughts come together in a chaotic book. From writing an outline in crayon on the back of a roll of wallpaper to the fighting of children to the secret of Dresden, the pieces create a cohesive front against the common thought that men fight in wars, when in reality, it’s the children.

Not sarcasm, but brusqueness

In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut asserts his message through a dark, matter-of-fact tone. He wants the audience to know that war isn’t the romanticized thing people believe it is. It is dark. It is true. Vonnegut utilises polysyndeton and asyndeton to describe his setting in a blunt way, to say “this is what happened, this is what’s happening, get over it”. “As I’ve said: I recently went back to Dresden with my friend O’Hare. We had a million laughs in Hamburg and West Berlin and East Berlin and Vienna and Salzburg and Helsinki and in Leningrad, too. It was very good for me, because I saw a lot of authentic backgrounds for made-up stories which I will write later on...” (19). He overloads the audience with his use of asyndeton, showing how chaotic his thoughts were as he wrote. Vonnegut uses hypotaxis to show the order of importance of the wrongdoings of war within the book and his own past. Through his use of parataxis he describes and characterizes people and events of his past. As Vonnegut uses all of these structures the reader begins to understand what he is actually trying to say.


Vonnegut warns the reader that this book is going to be a disjointed story about the cruelty of war, specifically the damage that is done to those young who are forced to fight. The audience is to expect a novel that is not for them, but for Vonnegut himself. He wants the audience to expect destruction, not of structures, but of lives. It is not going to be happy book. It is going to be a book about the misconceptions that war can cause. “You were just babies in the war...” (Vonnegut 14). Vonnegut will be arguing against including teenagers in a man’s war.

Mustard gas, so it goes

In chapter one of Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut introduces many motifs, including “So it goes,” and “mustard gas and roses.” Whenever someone or something dies he writes “So it goes” (2). The phrase allows the audience to see that life goes on after death. It continues in those past moments and memories that people hold. “So it goes,” will probably continue to show that life does continue, even after a tragedy. “I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with breath like mustard gas and roses” (4). Mustard gas and roses represents the contradictions that come with war. When he’s drunk late at night and on the phone with friends, he prefers to live before and in the war, as opposed to after it. Throughout the rest of the novel, mustard gas and roses is going to represent the contradictions between what people say and what they do. Vonnegut’s motifs characterize war. They reveal the un-glamourous life that war forces onto it’s unfortunate victims, living and dead.