I felt compelled to revisit Vonnegut’s iconic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, for two reasons. Firstly, because from time to time (and our times are no exception) we all have to remind ourselves of the macabre of wars. Our trigger-happy, posturing world leaders are teetering on the brink of showing each other who the boss is, and annihilating us in the process of doing so. Our misdirected and misinformed nations tread deeper and deeper into nationalism, isolationism and division. The progress of the world uniting under one banner of humanity has gone into reverse: Britain shunning the rest of Europe and undermining its resolve to never ever divide and repeat the catastrophe of two world wars. Trump’s USA withdrawing from many international organisations and inciting racial tensions and civil disorder internally. Putin’s Russia flexing its military muscle, annexing parts of other countries and meddling in elections and referenda worldwide to put in power Kremlin’s puppets. Middle East brewing in unrest and mass migration of displaced and desperate people. A lunatic in a tiny country of North Korea threatening to release WMD at a time of his choosing. This is our last chance to remember what wars are really about before we have another one.
Vonnegut shows us the true colours of war. He dismantles all the naively romantic notions anyone may have about war, the unrealistic heroism and the false premise of winners and losers. I didn’t enjoy reading Slaughterhouse Five, but then it wasn’t written for anyone’s entertainment. It is stark, cruel and unforgiving. It is a warning. People die – good people, bad people, losers and conquerors alike, soldiers and civilians, youngsters and the elderly, dogs, horses, allies and enemies. No one is exempt. No one is immune. No one is above it. And so it goes. Vonnegut shows it in raw, ugly detail, and that detail is no fiction.
War and death equalise everyone. No nation is idealised and no nation is condemned in its collective totality. Faults and failings befall all. It is a brave concept not to idealise the winners. In fact, Vonnegut shows quite effectively that war destroys everyone and everything. Every construct of what’s right and wrong, good and bad, justifiable and inexcusable is absolutely false. The “victorious” Americans are bombed on par with German civilians in an “open” city of Dresden. The bombs don’t discriminate between “them” and “us”. It is all “us”. And this is the irony of it – wars are started because of divisions, but as they spin out of our control everyone pays the same price, feels the same pain and has only one life to lose.
My second reason was to explore the time-travel idea in the book. It is harrowing for Billy Pilgrim to go over and over again through his terrifying war experience. Time doesn’t work chronologically in this tale. The war never really ends. It remains present throughout Billy’s entire life. Events from his birth, childhood, wartime and his post-war civilian life are mingled together. The trauma he has lived through can never be consigned to the past. There is no past. There is no future. Time is not linear. Everything is happening simultaneously, all the time, and Billy jumps in and out of events while they carry on unfolding on an endless loop. Billy’s sojourn into the alien world of Tralfamadore is his brain’s way of coping with the scars left by the war on his psyche. Those who lived through war will never put it behind them. That message really hits home when you think of all those child refugees physically leaving war-affected areas but having to spend the rest of their lives trapped back there forever.
It is such a powerful idea. War is timeless. Once you have unleashed it, it will not end. Slaughterhouse Five should be a compulsory read for young people to digest before they enter adulthood in order to dispel their childhood “jolly-war” myths and shield them against subscribing to prejudice, racism and intolerance dressed as national identity and patriotism.
And on the note of our future generations, A Conspiracy of Silence (my fifth DI Marsh murder mystery) explores modern-day youth’s vulnerabilities to the ideologies of superiority and ultra-right theories. It is out on 15th October: http://mybook.to/AConspiracyofSilence