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In his novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses a narrative about World War II as an opportunity to satirize the Allied powers rather than satirizing only the Axis countries. In other words, much of the satire of the book is directed at the Americans and British rather than at the Nazis or Japanese. Satire of the enemy might have been expected in an American novel about the war; satire of one’s own country would have seemed unusual. Vonnegut seems to have felt, however, that too few Americans knew the full complexities of the war – a war in which (he believed) atrocities committed by the Allies had often been at least as bad as those committed by the Germans and Japanese. Examples of the novel’s satire of the Allies include the following:
- At one point the narrator notes that
Not many Americans knew how much worse it [that is, the bombing of Dresden] had been than Hiroshima . . . . I didn’t know that, either.
Here the narrator compares one example of a horrific loss of life caused by the United States to a loss of life (caused by Britain and America) that he considers even more horrific.
- At another point the narrator refers to Americans who try “to construct a life that made sense . . . from things found in giftshops.” In other words, the narrator considers contemporary American society too shallow and materialistic.
- Later the narrator refers to an incident in which the American army executed an American soldier for cowardice – the only time this had been done since the Civil War. The narrator thus implies the harshness of the American military in World War II.
- In a passage describing a later American soldier who wanted to bomb the Vietnamese “back into the stone age,” the narrator implies that the American propensity for using extreme violence during war has not diminished in the period since Dresden and Hiroshima.
- Later the narrator refers to the firebombing of Dresden as “the greatest massacre in European history.” The narrator also suggests that this particular bombing was not at all a military necessity but was instead an example of warfare designed to terrify civilians.
In short, Vonnegut’s book seems intended to suggest that not all the horrors of the Second World War were committed by the Nazis and their allies. Britain and the U. S., the book suggests, also have the blood of innocent civilians on their hands.
It should be remembered that Vonnegut was writing during a time when the U. S. was the most powerful nation on earth – a nation capable (thanks to atomic weapons) of destroying any potential enemy many times over. Vonnegut was particularly concerned about the escalation of the Vietnam War and about the possibility that America might indeed be tempted to use its enormous military might to bomb the North Vietnamese “back into the stone age” – an idea that had real support at the time. Slaughterhouse Five is therefore not only a book about horrors committed in the past but also a warning against repeating those horrors in the near future.
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