Study Guide

Slaughterhouse-Five Warfare

By Kurt Vonnegut

Warfare

Chapter 1, Section 2
The Narrator

Do you know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books? [...] I say, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?" (1.2.9-11)

These are the words of real-life director Harrison Starr to the narrator in Chapter 1. Billy Pilgrim spends most of Slaughterhouse-Five trying to survive when he has no control over his own life.

The narrator himself seems to be struggling with a similar problem: how should he write a book against something he is pretty sure will never change? After all, if war and violence are part of human nature, how is Vonnegut supposed to imagine an alternative? But he tries... which is what distinguishes his character from Billy's.

Chapter 1, Section 10
Mary O'Hare

You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs! [...] But you're not going to write it that way, are you [...] You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs. (1.10.13-18)

Mary O'Hare thinks wars continue to be popular because writers glamorize the soldier's life. To counteract these kinds of stories, Slaughterhouse-Five is about the least glamorous account of life as a soldier you can imagine.

Chapter 2, Section 4
The Narrator

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. (1.16.1)

Billy's son Robert had a lot of trouble in high school, but then he joined the famous Green Berets. He straightened out, became a fine young man, and he fought in Vietnam. (2.4.1)

How does the narrator's treatment of his sons differ from Billy's treatment of Robert Pilgrim? Which do you think is the more ethically responsible? And why does Billy offer so little insight into Robert's character? He seems completely estranged from both his children. All this about Robert "straightening out and becoming a fine young man" reads more like a movie summary than a real assessment by a caring father of his son's character.

Chapter 2, Section 24
The Narrator

Weary's version of the true war story went like this. There was a big German attack, and Weary and his antitank buddies fought like hell until everybody was killed but Weary. So it goes. And then Weary tied in with two scouts, and they became close friends immediately, and they decided to fight their way back to their own lines. They were going to travel fast. They were damned if they'd surrender. They shook hands all around. They called themselves "The Three Musketeers." (2.24.3)

Even as Weary is in the middle of a real war, he fantasizes about what the war should be like. It's stories like Weary's that terrify and anger Mary O'Hare in the first chapter of the book (see quote #2). What does the novel suggest motivates Weary's bullying behavior? How does Weary's upbringing compare to Billy's? Do the differences between the two explain the differences in their characters?

Chapter 3, Section 1
The Narrator

The Germans and the dog were engaged in a military operation which had an amusingly self-explanatory name, a human enterprise which is seldom described in detail, whose name alone, when reported as news or history, gives many war enthusiasts a sort of post-coital satisfaction. It is, in the imagination of combat's fans, the divinely listless loveplay that follows the orgasm of victory. It is called "mopping up." (3.1.1)

Whoa, there's a lot of sexual imagery in this description of "mopping up" a battlefield. And Montana Wildhack describes Edgar Derby's execution much later in the novel as a "blue movie"—a pornographic film (9.33). Why does the narrator seem to connect war and violence with sex?

Chapter 3, Section 25
Wild Bob

But the colonel imagined that he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time, and he told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, that there were dead Germans all over the battlefield who wished to God they had never heard of the Four-fifty-first [...]

He said all this while staring into Billy's eyes. He made the inside of poor Billy's skull echo with balderdash. (3.25.3-4)

What is the "balderdash" that Wild Bob is spouting here? What kind of comments might the narrator be making about Wild Bob's heroic speech to his imagined regiment?

Chapter 5, Section 50
The Narrator

When the beautiful people were past, Valencia questioned her funny-looking husband about war. It was a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling to do, to associate sex and glamor with war. (5.50.1)

It's not just male war buffs who associate war with sex or who get some kind of pornographic excitement from violence. (See quote #5 for more on this.) Valencia is also getting kind of excited at the idea that Billy was in a war. But what do you make of the description of this association as "a simple-minded thing for a female Earthling"?

Chapter 6, Section 14
The British Colonel

You needn't worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentrations of any importance. (6.14.6)

This line is delivered by the British colonel, who still seems to have faith that all the violence in the war is fair, justified, and aimed at appropriate wartime targets. Yet, as we know, Billy and his POW comrades are anything but safe as they travel to Dresden. How does the colonel's ideas of warfare differ from the reality of Billy Pilgrim's experiences on the ground in Germany?

Chapter 8, Section 8

Trout's leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race. (8.8.5)

Kilgore Trout's novel suggests that people care more about how you look, dress, and smell than about what you do in the middle of a war. Do you think this is true? Do we see any similar criticism of social codes in other parts of the book?

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