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Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five calls attention to various defects in American society. These include the following:
- The existence of many poor people in an exceedingly rich country. Thus, one character comments that
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor . . .
Later a character comments,
Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor.
- A superficial, materialistic mind-set, as when the narrator mentions Americans who try “to construct a life that made sense . . . from things found in giftshops.”
- The shallowness of much American education, as is suggested by that statement that
At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.
This comment is highly reminiscent of the plot and themes of Vonnegut’s famous short story “Harrison Bergeron.”
- The hypocrisy of those who support war without having really fought in wars, while the veterans most opposed to war are the ones who have actually experienced combat.
- The dominance of corporations in American culture, as in the remarks about the New York World’s Fair.
- The tendency among some Americans to take war too lightly and to support what has sometimes been called “the military-industrial complex.” At one point, for instance, the narrator says,
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.
In short, Vonnegut’s novel is typical of much of the criticism of the United States voiced by people on the American left in the 1960s and 1970s. The most pressing issue at the time was the Vietnam War. Although Vonnegut’s novel is ostensibly concerned mainly with World War II, the book clearly seems relevant to the conflict in Vietnam and to the possibility that that conflict might grow even more deadly and destructive than it already was at the time when Vonnegut wrote his novel. Slaughterhouse Five presents many Americans and much of American culture as being morally shallow and inordinately materialistic. Mainly, though, the book is an implied warning that the United States should not repeat, in the Vietnam War, some of the ethical mistakes it had made in World War II.
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