A review of Slaughterhouse Five

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On page 177, Paul Lazzaro cuts up a spring and puts the bits in a steak and feeds it to a dog. I have never felt so angry reading a book, I have never hated a fictional character as much as I did while reading page 177. On page 201, Billy Pilgrim and a young German soldier, Werner Gluck are looking for the kitchen and they walk in on thirty teenage girls in a communal shower. It was a moment of raw comic relief. This is now one of my favourite books. It’s got aliens and time travel. But it’s also got war. And war is just ugly and terrible. Even if Billy Pilgrim is dressed as cinderella or stealing syrup or whatever.

I was thinking of reflecting on ANZAC day, which is three days from now. It’s the Australian public holiday that isn’t Australia Day that is all about being patriotic, and if you’re not you should feel bad. I’m not patriotic. Sure, I enjoy living here, but I hate the cultural Australian stereotype we have for ourselves, I hate pretending that there are no flaws in the system (aka: “if you don’t like it then leave”), and I hate the whole “us-verse-them” mentality of war. War sucks.

War fucking sucks.

No matter whose side you’re on.

It’s just easier to process the tragedy if there is a clear cut reason why many hundreds of thousands of people have died in wars. If you can say “we were the good guys and they were the bad guys” it seems more justified. But how can you justify 135,000 deaths in the bombing of Dresden (of which Slaughterhouse Five is about), or 71,000 deaths in Hiroshima from one bomb?

I reserve a certain level of respect for people that went to war, regardless of their nationality, simply because of the risk involved. You lose, you die. That’s it. The end. That happened for a lot of people. You win, you live, your country is a bit (or a lot) better off than the other countries, but you are all at a loss. There are casualties. There are always casualties. Bodies go missing. Names on lists are etched into monuments.

To me, these days are for horrors that existed outside my lifetime. They’re not about heroics or bravery (while there was probably plenty of both going around in the war), and they’re most definitely not about the bloodlust of people like Paul Lazzaro who think it’s their right to kill and have killed the people they think deserve it. That’s one thing that scares me about the situation in Iraq. The bloodlust. So I guess, for me, these days are about the risk. To live or die, it’s a bloody ugly fight all the way down either way. It’s shit. And the “bad guys” are probably feeling the same way.

You can’t change the past, and you shouldn’t glorify war, no matter what angle you take on it. You can follow Kurt Vonnegut’s example, and allow a little black humour in, to humanise the soldiers, to dampen the filth and the horror and the freakish mutant death, but you can’t make heroes out of killers. War reduces everyone to victims of two classes: corpses and survivors.

So it goes.

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