Periscope Depth

so it goes

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”

- Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve been reading and reviewing Slaughterhouse-Five for Overthinking It’s summer book club. We’re going through it very slowly – you can finish the book in a lazy afternoon, but we’re pacing it out so we can discuss each block of chapters in depth.

One of the things we talked about in our last review (Chapters 3 and 4) was how Vonnegut’s tone works to deny agency to every character, especially the protagonist Billy Pilgrim. Things happen to Pilgrim (he is captured by Germans; he is abused by his fellow prisoners; he sees things; he is captured by aliens). He does not do things beyond the most mundane – walking, eating, drinking, the functions of his job as an optometrist. Later in these chapters, the aliens who kidnap Pilgrim – the Tralfalmadorans – state that humans are the only species in the galaxy that have notions of free will.

One of my fellow bloggers (Richard R., I think) pointed out that Vonnegut’s theory of predestination and the illusion of free will, if authorial, contradicts his intention of writing an anti-war book. After all, how can you really oppose war if war, like everything else in human events, is inevitable? Stokes and Mlawski had some interesting analysis in response to this, so I urge a listen.

But I asserted (around the 28:00 mark, if you want to skip ahead)1 that an anti-war stance in the face of predeterminism isn’t a cop out – it is entirely possible, and not at all contradictory, to be anti-war and to see war as inevitable! One can rail against the inevitable. It’s tragic, and maybe a little pathetic, but definitely part of the human condition2.

Paul Fussell, my new favorite modern historian3, and, like Vonnegut, a WWII combat veteran, would understand this position entirely. “For the past fifty years, the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty,” he wrote in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. “I have tried to balance the scales.” He does this by writing about the inability of war planners to envision WWII going much like WWI, about the useful lies employed by the Allied side as well as the Axis, and about the general cynicism, disdain, and disregard that all enlisted men held for interaction with Command.

This last, Fussell describes eloquently as chickenshit, “behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige [...] and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances.” He gives examples of the corporal assigned to KP for disagreeing with Sarge; or soldiers who would make their bed with pristine corners and then sleep on the floor, rather than risk getting chewed out for a rumpled cot and losing a Saturday pass. Fussell’s theory is that this perpetual, tedious anxiety was to make the enlisted man long for combat: “the only way to escape most of the chickenshit was to be in combat and so far forward as to be virtually unreachable and surely uninspectable.”

And yet, I can’t go so far (on the strength of that book alone) as to say that Fussell was anti-war, or at least not anti-WWII. He certainly preferred a world without Hitler, as all sane people do. But what Fussell loathed was the assumption that the noble cause of removing Hitler from power transferred a nobility to the actions of the men in Allied combat and command – or that such a cause was even the reason why most of those men, especially the Americans, were in Europe. Like all exercises in moving massive numbers of men from one place to another, war brings out the stupidest, cruelest aspects of humanity, and this is before the shooting starts. This is always and everywhere true, whether or not the war is necessary. Regardless of whether you think a war is noble or shameful, started on just pretexts or false, you have to accept that it will result in your side – your side – wasting money, ruining cultural landmarks, killing civilians, torturing the enemy, and conducting themselves in a way that would mortify you. You have to accept that, because it always happens.

I don’t know Fussell’s opinion on Vonnegut, but having read Wartime recently has colored this re-read of Slaughterhouse-Five seventeen years later. A historian who lamented the brutality of war and yet was still a proud veteran, who raged against the deaths of civilians yet wrote an essay titled “Thank God for the Atom Bomb“, would understand Vonnegut’s position without blinking. He would grasp a stance that argued that war is both cruel and inevitable. He would understand a man who calls his comrades at night, his breath reeking so of drink that he feared it carried down the analog wires, searching for meaning.

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1. Apologies for my shitty sound quality. I was podcasting from inside a Queen Anne dresser tumbling down Ayers Rock, known for its poor wi-fi.

2. If you’ll forgive me repeating myself.

3. As with many good things in my life of the mind, I am grateful to Leonard Pierce for the introduction.