War is always a complicated issue, particularly with regards to wars being fought in nations not directly involved in the conflict. Public opinion of their nation entering dramatic conflicts – risking the lives of their citizens and killing others – depends largely on cultural factors that can shift and change depending on history and context. While World War II was a largely well-supported conflict, given the attack on Pearl Harbor and the undisputed evil of the Nazis, the Vietnam War had a decidedly more complex reaction. These anxieties are also reflected in literature; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five capitalizes on the Vietnam War tension experienced during the 1960s and 1970s to retroactively show World War II as an equally complicated and traumatizing experience for its main character, Billy Pilgrim.
Even though Americans had wholeheartedly come to defend its entry into World War II in the 1940s, the Vietnam War was a much more controversial conflict for many. World War II was met with much more positive reception by the American people, due to the moral righteousness felt at joining the fight against the much-maligned Nazi Forces in the early 1940s, as well as the desire for revenge after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 (Foner 910). Vietnam, however, was much more complicated – the war itself was part of the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism throughout the world, which upset the New Left political movement that had been gaining ground in the 1960s. A combination of the rise of the counterculture and civil rights movements, along with the substantial losses experienced by American troops and the gruesome images coming back home from Vietnam via the news media, contributed to growing Vietnam protest movements (Foner 1056). These factors created much more hostile reaction to the American war effort in Vietnam than the well-supported efforts in World War II.
This resistance and ambivalence toward America’s presence in Vietnam follows through into Vonnegut’s treatment of World War II in Slaughterhouse-Five. The character of Billy Pilgrim slowly loses his mind over the course of the book as a result of both his strange time travelling nature and the horrors of WWII. While Billy is fighting in World War II, his experiences greatly echo the chaos and desolation experience and reported by many during the Vietnam War. Billy experiences many horrors in his time in the war, including being captured as a prisoner of war and witnessing the bombing of Dresden; these experiences haunt him a great deal, leading him to feel nothing and preferring death to this continued suffering (Vonnegut 134). Billy’s experiences conflict with the typical American view of World War II as a glorious, just war, as the ugliness and chaos of the war as it was fought is presented in stark detail through the book. Whereas World War II had gotten an entire culture to believe in the system, Vietnam’s failures demolished that trust; Billy’s journey is a case study for why even this prior belief in the system was flawed (Fomer 1061).
The imperialism and violence inherent in the Vietnam War had a decided effect on the way Vonnegut treated World War II in Slaughterhouse-Five. This is exacerbated by the lack of support that America gives veterans like him when he comes back: "When Billy returns home, America does not provide him with the possibility of working through his war experiences, particularly the bombing of Dresden, and thus occasions Billy's chronic suffering" (Vees-Gulani 177). One sight of a barbershop quartet after returning home from war brings him to a flashback of four guards in Dresden who, "in their astonishment and grief, resembled a barbershop quartet" (Vonnegut 179).While popular culture of the 1950s likely saw World War II as a righteous war, Vonnegut’s descriptions of the horrors Billy found there, and their explicit connections to Vietnam, likens the two wars as equally destructive and horrifying.
In his writing of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut was clearly inspired by his horror at the devastation, psychological torment, and injustice inherent to fighting the Vietnam War. He then transposed this onto his characters’ experiences of World War II, showing that all war is just as horrifying, regardless of the cultural contexts that make one war more ‘just’ than the other. Vonnegut’s treatment of World War II evokes a transformation in the American people’s opinion of war from believing in our status as world police to resisting our imperialist desire to meddle in the affairs of others. Just as Billy Pilgrim goes through hell in his World War II experiences, so too did soldiers in Vietnam; America was no longer boldly risking its life to bring about world peace, but sending soldiers through a meat grinder to fulfill a political agenda, according to widespread public opinion. Vonnegut taps into this cynicism regarding the ‘glory’ of war in Slaughterhouse-Five, shining a light on the destructive nature of conflict even in ‘just’ wars like World War II.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History. 3rd ed. W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
Vees-Gulani, Susanne. "Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five." CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 44, no. 2 (Winter 2003), p. 175. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. Delacorte, 1969. Print.