#20: Dresden

cathedrals under cloudy blue sky

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The city of Dresden was bombed during World War II, near the end of the European campaign, in an attack that many military experts consider to have been unnecessary and inhumane. A vicious attack on non-combat civilians. Does war necessitate atrocities like this? Should the ethical problems caused by new technologies, such as firebombs and nuclear missiles, endanger their everyday use? Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five approaches this topic through the perspective of Billy Pilgrim, a boy who got “unstuck in time” and flits through various episodes of his life in non-chronological order. His PTSD seems to be one of the primary causes of his timeless condition, and the book explores the dramatic mental degradation that can result from a series of traumatic experiences in the past.

I once taught this book, and in order to introduce it, we studied historical contexts during the 60s — music, fashion, protests, the war, and UFO sightings. The UFO sightings project was mostly for entertainment and curiosity’s sake more than anything else. We discussed the Vietnam war, how American citizens were powerless against the draft, to die fighting in a war they knew had no point to it. Vonnegut addresses this idea of powerlessness against larger forces in Slaughterhouse-Five; Billy is scooped up by a Tralfamadorian spaceship and transported into their zoo to live as an exhibit, and this memory comes back to Billy as he fights in World War II, on the brink of death. He connects the two situations in order to draw parallels between them.

As Billy ends up a prisoner in Dresden, so too is Kurt Vonnegut, the author. Vonnegut speaks to Billy, and even prefaces the book with a chapter on his journey through writing the book you are currently reading. The book gets weird like that. I recommend reading it for yourself, in order to get a handle on the oddities and craziness here.


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