In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, how did the troop of Americans come to have only four guards?
The American POWs started off with eight guards in Dresden, a group of old men, young boys, and even a man with an artificial leg (149). On the evening of the firebombing, four of the guards go home to rest, while four stay in the slaughterhouse to keep watch. What seemed to the four homeward bound guards to be a welcome break turned out to be their death sentence.
The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families. (177)
The fact that there are four guards remaining is significant because of the way Billy has an emotional flashback while celebrating his eighteenth wedding anniversary. The barbershop quartet singing at the party upsets him deeply, though at first he doesn’t understand why. He eventually remembers the traumatic experience of surviving in the meat locker along with the four German guards.
While the city is burning, the four guards left with the prisoners in the meat locker are bewildered and distraught by the nightmare unfolding above them. “They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet” (178).
One of the biggest themes of the novel is the interpenetration of the past, the present, and the future, as well as the power of memory and trauma to shape our lives. The parallel between the four guards and the barbershop quartet is just one of many clues as to what’s really going on in Billy Pilgrim’s mind. This is one of the few parts of the novel about the war that isn’t the result of Billy becoming ‘unstuck’ in time. And it’s a memory about the cataclysmic, traumatic moment in Billy’s (and Vonnegut’s) life around which the whole novel revolves.
Vonnegut, Kurt. 8. Slaughterhouse-five: Or, The Children's Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Delacorte, 1969. 178-79. Print.