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Rediscovering The Trauma of War in Slaughterhouse-five

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During times of war soldiers experience horrific atrocities that are mentally and physically crippling. Most cannot begin to comprehend these sinister and morbid images due to their lack of military experience. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the main character is Billy Pilgrim, who serves the United States in World War II. Billy is a chaplain’s assistant and does not actually engage in combat, allowing him to be an observer of the war rather than an active participant engaging in battle. His position as an enlisted but unarmed spectator of the war leads to the cataclysmic sights and memories that Billy recollects throughout the novel because he witnesses more than most soldiers do and therefore is more traumatized. Billy is captured in Germany and kept as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp, where he witnesses the total destruction of the town of Dresden. The catastrophes that Billy experiences traumatize him for the remainder of his life and lead to his psychological impairment and eventual death. However, Billy uses his imagination to reduce some of the pain, creating memories that help him cope with his trauma. After witnessing the destruction and devastation of war, many soldiers, including Billy, mask the trauma; eventually leading to their psychological and physical deterioration. Nevertheless, the trauma will always be present throughout the entirety of a soldier’s life.

Slaughterhouse-Five is somewhat of an autobiography of Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II, but, he writes the novel as narrative historical fiction. Vonnegut chooses this particular style and genre of writing because he is too traumatized by the war to write about his own life and therefore writes vicariously through the life of Billy. War is a faceless and violent way to resolve a problem and once war has begun, it is out of the control of the people and in the hands of the soldiers. However, these soldiers, representing and fighting for their country, do not have as much as control as they believe. “There are no characters in war, [Vonnegut] says, only pawns, victims. Lots of victims are children and, indeed, even the combatants seem like children swept up in events beyond their control” (Reed 4).

War is truly out of the control of anyone and death is strongly associated with war. Death is one of the most significant events leading to trauma, and in war, death is a daily occurrence, especially for Billy. “One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design” (Vonnegut 230). The bombing and total destruction of Dresden is an event so catastrophic that it is viewed as even more destructive than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and therefore everyone should be dead. However, Billy is the “flaw in the design” and feels guilty for surviving. Billy is traumatized by his survival because he has to live with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children died, but when the dust settles he is one of the few remaining. The trauma that Billy experiences during the war recurs when he is involved in a plane crash later in his life where he is the only survivor:

The people who first got to the crash scene were young Austrian ski instructors from the famous ski resort below. They spoke to each other in German as they went from body to body. They wore black wind masks with two holes for their eyes and a red topknot. They looked like golliwogs…Billy thought the golliwog had something to do with World War Two, and he whispered to him his address: ‘Schlachthof-fünf’ (Vonnegut 199).

Schlachthof-fünf is German for “slaughterhouse-five”, the name of the building that he lives and works in at the concentration camp, and if a guard ever approaches him he is to recite those words. The war traumatizes Billy so much that after being in the plane crash he does not know where or when he is and thinks the German speaking ski instructor is a German guard. Billy continuously re-experiences events in forms of distressing images, thoughts, perceptions, and dreams – his trauma is an aspect of his life that is beyond his control.

The trauma from war exists in the lives of soldiers even after combat, and veterans, including Billy, often mask their trauma rather than trying to cope. Billy uses time travel to mask his pain, spontaneously jumping from one moment in his life to another. “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant stage of fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (Vonnegut 29). Billy’s time travel is a way of masking his trauma; if he is not enjoying something, then he time travels to another, hopefully, but not always, joyful moment in his life. Billy uses different methods of masking his trauma, one technique is imagining that something as awful as death is not as bad as it is or may seem. “By exercising one’s selective memory, by becoming an ostrich, one may indeed live in a world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts” (Vanderwerken 2).

Billy is selective in choosing what he wants to remember, eliminating painful memories by masking them with more desirable and pleasing memories. A popular mask of Billy’s pain is his imagination’s invention of Tralfamadore. Billy devises the idea that he and actress Montana Wildhack are abducted by aliens, Tralfamadorians, and put in a zoo where they are observed. Billy uses Tralfamadore to mask his trauma; if painful memories enter his mind, then he instantly time-travels to Tralfamadore. Tralfamadore is a hallucination of Billy’s hiding from the pain that he endures during the war. The masking of his trauma evokes itself in subtle ways; for instance, Billy is quite successful in his life after the war. He is president of the Lions Club, works as a prosperous optometrist, lives in a comfortable upper middle class home, and has even fathered two children. While Billy seems to be leading a productive postwar life, there is much beneath the surface that is not revealed. Beneath the luxury of his success lies a man too war-torn to understand what is happening to him. In fact, Billy, short for William, indicates that he is more an immature boy than a man, and the war has not made him a better person, but has driven him into a corner of trauma.

The experiences of war leave veterans, including Billy, traumatized; and even though their trauma will never completely go away, there are methods of coping to relieve some of the pain. The war has put Billy in a state of constant panic and suffering, never knowing when the horrific memories of war will reappear. “The price for his (Billy’s) survival is a memory haunted by fear and death. He moves from one disaster to another unable to either banish or accept the experience of Dresden” (Berryman 3). The trauma Billy has endured will never go away regardless of the many masks he uses to ease his pain. However, there are methods of coping with the trauma to reduce some of the fear and pain. The most significant coping technique that Billy uses is his invention of Tralfamadore, a place where he is able to heal his emotional wounds. “…Billy Pilgrim, finds only in the delusion of Tralfamadore, with its denial of time and offering of sex, a way to cope with his survival of Dresden and the many deaths before and after” (LeClair 1). Montana Wildhack, with her sexual innuendo and provocation, is Billy’s primary tool for coping with his pain, because he talks to her about his painful memories, which helps him cope with his traumatizing experiences.

Furthermore, the Tralfamadorians believe time is a continuum of moments existing simultaneously rather than a chronological sequence. Their perception of time explains Vonnegut’s format of the novel; every scene is divided by three dots to give the audience an idea of the importance of time. The Tralfamadorians also believe that when a person dies they are not actually dead; they are simply in poor condition at that certain moment, and they are perfectly lively in another moment. This idea of death as meaningless allows Billy to view all of the deaths, including the hundreds of thousands in Dresden, as merely insignificant, discarding all pain and trauma he previously had. Billy’s new outlook on death leads him to say, “So it goes” whenever he mentions death. “Tralfamadorian philosophy, which opposes trying to make sense out of occurrences, helps Billy deal with the horrible events and their consequences by reinterpreting their meaning” (Vees-Gulani 5). Tralfamadore takes Billy away from the trials and tribulations of the harsh world he lives in by perceiving horrible events, such as death, optimistically. Tralfamadore also offers him new outlooks on life while easing his emotional pain. Vonnegut vicariously helps Billy cope with his trauma while actually coping with Vonnegut’s own trauma. “Faced boldly, narrated and thereby worked through, the trauma of Dresden is exorcised of its dark spell on Vonnegut’s imagination” (Giannone 12). Vonnegut has an immense amount of pent up emotion and relieves himself of much of it by helping Billy relieve some of his pain as well. Tralfamadore is the primary technique Billy uses to cope with, and even forget his trauma from the war.

The trauma that Billy, along with many other soldiers, endures during the war is a pain that can never be relinquished, and masking the trauma is the worst possible way to deal with the pain. Nevertheless, there are many ways of coping with the trauma; however, some of them are not always beneficial, such as Billy’s methods of creating the memory that he is abducted by Tralfamadorians. “Tralfamadore is a fantasy, a desperate attempt to rationalize chaos, but one must sympathize with Billy’s need to create Tralfamadore” (Merrill and Scholl 6). Billy needs to create Tralfamadore to mask the trauma, but as he invites other accommodations to his fantasy planet, such as Montana Wildhack, the masking of his trauma turns into the coping of his pain. There is no past, present or future tense in Slaughterhouse-Five and therefore it is impossible to decipher the time in Billy’s life that he is speaking from. This reflects on the war trauma that haunts Billy until his death because it does not matter where you are in your life; trauma, pain and anguish will always exist.

Works Cited

  1. Berryman, Charles. “After the Fall: Kurt Vonnegut.” Studies in Modern Fiction vol. 26. Gale Literary Database. 3 December 2004. <…> 1-5.
  2. Giannone, Richard. “Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels.” Literary Resource Center. 1977. Gale Literary Database. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 3 December 2004. <…> 1-18.
  3. LeClair, Thomas. “Death and Black Humor.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction vol. 17. 1975. Student Resource Center. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 6 December 2004. <…> 1-2.
  4. Merrill, Robert and Scholl, Peter A. “Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: The Requirements of Chaos.” Studies in American Fiction vol. 6. 1978. Gale Literary Database. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 3 December 2004. <…> 1-13.
  5. Reed, Peter J. “Authenticity and Relevance: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints. 1993.
  6. Student Resource Center. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 6 December 2004. <…> 1-5.
  7. Vanderwerken, David L. “Pilgrim’s Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five.” Research Studies. September 1974. Student Resource Center. Deering HS Lib., Portland, ME. 6 December 2004. <…> 1-5.
  8. Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Winter 2004, vol. 44. Gale Literary Database. 1-11.
  9. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Delta, 1969.

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