My Grandfather and Slaughterhouse-Five
Welcome back Vonnegut fans. I’m glad to be back with you.
So I promised an interview and unfortunately, due to an iPhone memos app screw-up, I don’t have a recording of my interview. So that will have to wait until my next post. But I wanted to elaborate on some things that my grandfather told me during my interview with him. My plan had been to write this essay/piece using my interview with my grandfather and select quotes from Vonnegut interviews about WWII. I’m going to do that, but it will have to do without exact quotes from him.
My grandfather served in the 9th Army during WWII. He was wounded twice, the second time in the leg just before the Battle of the Bulge (the historic battle that was the site of Vonnegut’s capture and imprisonment at Dresden). My grandfather missed the Battle of the Bulge, rejoining his unit in February of 1945 (the Battle of the Bulge ended in January of 1945). Francis Schiffhauer saw the same kind of terror, the same kind of violence that Vonnegut saw. Francis saw most of the friends he came overseas with killed. Vonnegut saw the destruction of Dresden during his imprisonment in that town. Their shared experiences informed how they viewed the world post-war.
After the war Francis settled into a life as an engineer and a father of eight and Vonnegut went on to write the novels we know and love. Despite Francis and Vonnegut’s divergent paths post-war they both came home stridently anti-war, a belief-system that drove Vonnegut’s writing throughout his career and an ethical and moral belief that my grandfather has quietly held since he left the Army.
Vonnegut struck a chord with my grandfather. He read Slaughterhouse-Five 20 years ago. He remembers reading about Dresden when it happened. England’s cruelty and vindictiveness horrified my grandfather. It was a bombing he called “pointless,” an attack that happened so close to the end of the war and one that he felt served no purpose except to exact petty revenge for the bombing of England. Slaugherhouse-Five gave voice to that horror.
In an interview with Roger Friedman of Fox News (of all places) in 2002, Vonnegut expanded on his views of WWII:
“One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war,” Vonnegut said. “It’s been possible for politicians and movie-makers to encourage us we’re always good guys. The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of.”
For most of us, Vonnegut’s writing (particularly Slaughterhouse-Five), can’t be viewed through such an intensely personal perspective. We love the dream-like quality of that novel, the sudden and delightful insertion of Vonnegut himself into Breakfast of Champions, the profound and absurd narrative path of Cat’s Cradle and Vonnegut’s wit and sense of irony in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
But when it comes to Slaughterhouse-Five, very few of us can truly relate.
I’m sure there are other veterans who share those same sentiments. Maybe some are reading this blog post. If you want to share a story feel free to comment or shoot me an email at [email protected].