In A Nutshell
Kurt Vonnegut is probably most associated with the 1960s and its crazy experimental fiction. But before he became popular with Bohemians and hippies, Vonnegut was a soldier, fighting in World War II as an American advance infantry scout in the 106th Division. His first deployment in Europe was to fight back the last major German offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and brought to Dresden, where he was kept in relatively decent conditions in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
If you think this is all building up to something awful, you're right. On February 13, 1945, while Vonnegut was in Dresden as an American POW (prisoner of war), Allied bombers dropped a huge wave of "incendiary devices" on the city – bombs made of super explosive materials like phosphorus and jellied petroleum (a.k.a. napalm for you Vietnam War buffs out there). Dresden went up in flames and pretty much the entire city was destroyed. This single firebombing had a death toll, the novel tells us, of 135,000 people, though there is some debate about actual numbers. (Read more about Dresden here.)
Even now, the jury is out about whether the Dresden firebombing, with its high number of civilian deaths, was militarily necessary. Whatever historians may think about the deaths at Dresden, Vonnegut certainly felt that he had witnessed "the largest single massacre in military history," worse even than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombings (source: Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990. Pg. 4).
It took a while before Vonnegut could really write about his experiences during the Dresden firebombing, and not just because it was so personally painful. The firebombing was classified top-secret for years. Vonnegut explicitly points out the troubles he had getting information on the bombing from the Air Force in Chapter 1, Section 7.
Slaughterhouse-Five finally came out in 1969, 25 years after the Dresden firebombing, but only one year after the hugely unpopular Vietnam War Tet Offensive, just as the anti-war movement really started to intensify in the U.S. In the middle of growing demands to end the war in Vietnam, Slaughterhouse-Five seemed to express the emerging popular horror at the idea of war. With its hugely successful publication, Vonnegut cemented his reputation as the spokesman for America's 1960s and 1970s counterculture.
Why Should I Care?
A common topic of discussion over here on the Shmoop couch after we have just finished watching an episode of America's Next Top Model or Project Runway is that life is not fair. In fact, you may have noticed that life is often actively cruel. Our favorite models get dinged early, talented singers come in second on American Idol…the injustice of it all! We have all occasionally found existence meaningless or hard to get through, and we find various ways (like, say, reality TV or Sherlock Holmes novels) to cope.
Billy Pilgrim, the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five, has way more proof than we do of how crummy life can be. He is, after all, a prisoner of war and witness to one of the most horrible massacres in history. Who can blame Billy for escaping into crappy science fiction whenever life gets a bit much? In fact, his pain is so deep and goes so far beyond our day-to-day relationship and family troubles that he really starts to lose himself, literally, in fiction.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about war, but even more than that, it's about what comes after war, when someone who has lived through it has to rebuild his sense of self. Billy's trips to the alien planet Tralfamadore and his fanboy relationship with sci-fi author Kilgore Trout are way more extreme than our weekly Top Model catharsis. But it's a difference of degree rather than kind. We all sometimes need a refuge from our lives. And Billy's reality is so much worse than ours that we can totally see why he decides to go on a permanent mental vacation.