After the second World War, America solidified and extended its spot as a world superpower. Industry was booming come up, modern political reforms started to take place, and technology was skyrocketing. Everything was on the up. However, estimates range that 50 million – 80 million people died in the war. How could so many losses be worth it? One author who encountered the dark side of war is Kurt Vonnegut. World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut’s war experiences turned him into a pacifist and fueled him to show the real side of war through the characters and events of his short stories.
Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was born the third child of Kurt Vonnegut Sr, and Edith Vonnegut. Vonnegut Sr. was an architect who had a successful business. After the Great Depression hit in 1929, the business took a hit. This resulted in Kurt Vonnegut being taken out of private school, and being placed in public school, unlike his brothers who stayed in private school.
In high school, Vonnegut wrote for the student paper at Shortridge High School (Allen).
This is where he learned the ropes of writing. The students there enjoyed his work, and he mastered his style and craft as he ventured through.
Vonnegut was enlisted in 1944 into the US army at age twenty. He was apart of the 106th Infantry (Farrell), who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, or the Ardennes Counteroffensive. During this battle, he and other members were captured as prisoners of war (POW) by Germany.
During his captivity, the Dresden Firebombing took place. On February 13th, Allied bombers dropped thousands of tons of bombs on the city of Dresden (History.com). Vonnegut and five other members survived because they hid in meat lockers several stories underground (Allen). Estimates at the time suggested nearly 200,000 people were killed by the attacks. This would make it one of the grandest death tolls in the whole war (History.com). In the aftermath of the attacks, Vonnegut had to burn the dead remains of the bodies for weeks.
War has an ability to take control away from one’s life. This was exemplified in the Dresden experience, where a city with no military power or occupancy was targeted and decimated. Vonnegut’s short story, “All the King’s Horses”, displays this horror through the characters and events of the story. After a plane crash on the Asian mainland, Colonel Bryan Kelly was challenged to a chess game against a communist guerilla leader named Pi Ying, where the other Americans were the chess pieces on Kelly’s team. Pi Ying’s pieces were represented by wood carvings. Everytime one of Colonel Kelly’s pieces were captured, the person representing that piece would be executed. Four people were executed within an hour. Pi Ying sadistically wanted whatever killed the most people. Battling with his brain, Kelly struggled to think of moves. Then, he realized the only way to win was to lead Pi Ying into a trap. The catch to the trap was that it needed bait, a sacrifice. To open up the proper line of attack, Kelly needed to sacrifice his horse, and the horse was his son. There was no other way. If x dies, everyone else lives. Hastily approaching the ten-minute turn limit, Kelly had to state his decision. Shock and hysteria had consumed his wife and his son. Before Pi Ying can order the child to be killed, a young Chinese girl, who had been watching in subtle discomfort, got up to stab and slay Pi Ying, and subsequently herself. Major Barzov took over after a hefty wait time, only to be beaten in three moves by Kelly. Barzov blamed Pi Ying’s bloodlust and ignorance for the loss, but congratulated Kelly nonetheless.
Colonel Kelly’s experience during the ‘game’ of chess is parallel to the feelings and emotions Vonnegut felt during his service in World War II. The sheer terror is voiced through the mental vertigo of Kelly and his chessmen.
“Kelly’s calm was shattered, and with it the illusion of the game. The pieces in his power were human beings again. The precious, brutal stuff of command was gone from Colonel Kelly. He was no more fit to make decisions of life and death than the rawest recruit. Giddily, he realized that Pi Ying’s object was not to win the game quickly, but to thin out the Americans in harrowing, pointless forays.” (Vonnegut 5)
The strong word choice of Vonnegut brings out the proper tone of war. Every humane aspect was taken out from the scenario. Kelly’s realization that this is all a ploy for ‘pointless forays’ of death conveys the idea that Vonnegut does not see the need to kill others in any circumstances. It would be unnecessary to take the lives of others. This means that Vonnegut would believe the death of people in war could be prevented, by not fighting at all. It is stated by Pi Ying that sacrifices are what wins chess matches, as well as battles (Vonnegut 3). In addition, Kelly deduces that sacrificing his son would be that sacrifice. When x dies, everyone else will survive (Vonnegut 6). When Kelly really thinks about it, he realizes that this is no different to what he knows of war (Vonnegut 1). “When human beings are attacked, x, multiplied by hundreds and thousands, must die, sent to death by those who love them most. Kelly’s profession was the choosing of x.” (Vonnegut 6)
The chess game is a scaled down game of war, as Pi Ying, Major Barzov and Colonel Kelly all know. The mental obliteration experienced by the people affected in the game is multiplied by hundreds and thousands in real war. Vonnegut’s addition of this epigram is condemning those who engage in war. The thousands of lives taken as x could all be prevented. As shown in Dresden, Vonnegut believes the deaths are just wasteful. “I was simply impressed by the wastefulness, the terrible wastefulness, the meaninglessness of war.’ (NPR: All Things Considered) According to Vonnegut, what comes with war is death and sacrifices, and those are wasteful and unnecessary ones, but is in “the essence of war.” to have it (Vonnegut 3).
War separates people from who they love the most. He constantly wrote to his first wife, Jane Cox (The New Yorker). They felt the war had separated them. Vonnegut got married on September 1, 1945, exactly when the war ended (Vonnegut Library). This is translated in the short story “Long Walk to Forever”. An American soldier, named Newt, deserted his post in the war once he found out that his longtime childhood friend, Catharine, is getting married to someone else. Newt goes AWOL to go back and convince her to marry him instead. Newt takes Catharine on a walk like they always used to as kids. This is to remind Catharine of the great times they had together, and that more could come. Newt’s reasoning for asking to go on a walk with Catharine was that he loves her. Catharine is honored, but believes that this is all craziness, and suggests Newt should go back. However, she bursts into tears out of nowhere when Newt tells her to remember how much he loves her. Catharine tries hard over and over again to not let the situation get any further, but Newt knew exactly what he was doing, and he was getting closer to Catharine admitting her love for him. They kissed two times, the second Catharine wanted to without saying it. Without knowing it, the two walked far away from their starting point. They ended up in an orchid. Newt tells Catharine to go to sleep and dream of her husband-to-be. Newt confesses his love again, but they both say “too late” (Vonnegut 8). They decided to part ways there, but soon after Newt turned around and called to Catharine, and she ran as fast as she could into his arms.
If Newt did not go AWOL for Catharine, their true love might’ve never came to surface. Yet, Newt will face consequences for his actions, by spending days on days in the stockade (Vonnegut 6). The war separated the two from matching with each other, and if it weren’t for Newt’s persistence, it would have stopped at “too late”. This is just one way that war can separate others. Even in Vonnegut’s case, when he entered at twenty years old. He was sent to fight, leaving his family, friends, and soon-to-be wife behind.
Vonnegut came home from the war on leave for Mother’s Day in 1944. He came home to find that his mother had overdosed on sleeping pills the night before (Baker). He said that the suicide would hover over him for the rest of his life (Farrell). The war took Vonnegut away from his loved ones, as it does to so many.
Vonnegut believes that war is a thing that destroys, which is why he’s a pacifist. It needs unnecessary sacrifice of lives, and separates loved ones. All the tragedy could be avoided without fighting.