I was surprised to discover that my local library’s two copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse Five were checked out and that I would have to wait my turn at it. I then realized that there are others like myself who are fascinated at the fifty-year anniversary of just about anything.
Captivated by this particular half-century mark, i.e., the publication of an anti-war book during America’s peak involvement in Vietnam written by an eyewitness to the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, I now proudly own all of Vonnegut’s novels written from 1950 to 1997.
Taken captive in the waning months of the war, Vonnegut was held as a POW in what had literally been a slaughterhouse in Dresden. His captors were young boys and old men wearing soldier uniforms. Following the raids, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners helped gather and dispose of the remains of tens of thousands of German civilians. This experience, more than anything, explains how Kurt Vonnegut became Kurt Vonnegut. In the pages of Slaughterhouse Five, then, we have, not only the real horrors of Dresden but, the near-maniacal wonderings of one of its survivors.
While awaiting the arrival of my new Vonnegut collection, I finished Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 which is the first of an intended three-volume treatise on the American Revolution. Having spent many years instructing eighth graders on the subject, I was taken with the great nuance that emerges when an historian tackles a seemingly familiar topic.
Occasionally, historians acquire more of the documents that inform the record. Indeed, Atkinson tapped into some recently released papers of King George III and then went on to dispel the generally accepted notion of the king as the bumbling idiot who lost the British Empire’s greatest prize. Atkinson’s “George” is actually a much beloved figure who had great support while he waged war on some of his own people; a subject perhaps on the minds of many Americans today.
Atkinson’s most significant contribution is his reexamination of the existing record to uncover the doubts and insecurities experienced by those we rarely associate with doubt and insecurity. The fresh message is that Americans have often been as socially and politically divided as we are today. With a handful of committed Loyalists on one side and a radical group of Patriots on the other, many Americans of the 1770s found their allegiances determined more by the proximity of one army over the other rather than grand ideas involving taxation and representation.
Today, with no roving armies to contend with, Americans seem relatively free to openly criticize those who wage war on our behalf. Of course, this freedom of critical expression is shaped by those at the top. For instance, I see it as no coincidence that President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, warning of the dangers of a recently established “military-industrial complex,” was followed directly by the most profoundly protested war in American history. It is also no coincidence that Eisenhower’s address and then the war itself were broadcast directly into America’s living rooms. Much of the disgust Americans expressed in the 1960s was the product of a more personal exposure, largely through television, to war itself.
In a similar vein, The British Are Coming indirectly challenges our collective take on the American Revolution; previously shaped by patriotic celebrations of an enlightened age when oppressed underdogs, armed with the noble sentiments of human liberty and equality, overcame a superior force through grit, determination, and great suffering endured on the battlefield and while hunkered down through long, desperate winters. During these celebrations, the brutality of war itself is almost an afterthought.
Quite often missing from the nation’s founding narrative, now largely corrected by Atkinson, have been the personal animosities, the wavering loyalties, and the very real likelihood that, had the outcome not favored the American side, our remembrance would probably resemble those attributed to other, less heralded moments of widespread deprivation and atrocity. Most relevant may be Atkinson’s visceral portrayal of the violence which begs the reader to question the enduring human tendency to settle disagreements over boundary and identity with such great barbarity.
Modern depictions of war in the twenty-first century in our histories and our entertainments no longer hold much back. War is, and always has been a contest that pits against one another opposing masses of humanity determined to inflict as much physical pain and suffering as they can muster.
The upside is that war has been brought so intimately into our lives over the last several decades that many of us are no longer willing to accept flimsy arguments made on behalf of the next military intervention. War may sometimes be necessary, although it seems we should be making some progress to figure out why this is so. Until that happens, any decisions made regarding its deployment are better served when the people understand exactly what it means to engage in it.
This type of thinking is rarely on display when the fireworks are booming overhead. And, even as The British Are Coming confirms that we have every reason to rejoice in our liberty, it offers new insights about what it means to defend it. It is not the anti-war book that Slaughterhouse Five is yet. Both confront the hypocrisy that there is virtue to be found when human beings are destroying one another.
Atkinson’s rendering of the American Revolution sets the record a bit straighter and I eagerly await Volume Two. I will read it with Vonnegut in mind because, a half-century ago, he attempted, through the eyes of a soldier, to teach us all that, no matter the alleged nobility and purpose behind it, war, then and now, violates the very essence of the human experience.