Vonnegut and Sassoon -- Anti-War Sentiments in Writing
Kurt Vonnegut and Sigfried Sassoon are both war veterans turned writers who have writings that can be expressed as anti-war. With both men, their experiences in war left them very much opposed to it and with a sense of its futility. They chose to express these feelings in writing, but did so in very different ways. Vonnegut expressed his anti-war sentiments in prose, most notably in his famous novel, "Slaughterhouse Five." Sassoon expressed his in poetry. Also, Vonnegut's anti-war sentiments are more metaphorical and have to be teased out of his writing, whereas Sassoon's are much more literal and are evident in every word that he writes. There is no mistaking how Sassoon feels about war once one reads his poems. This paper examines "Slaughterhouse Five" and three different poems by Sassoon, and how these writings express the anti-war sentiments of the writers and the different ways in which they do so.
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" is considered a classic of 20th century literature. It is also a very heavily anti-war novel, though not everyone may notice this upon first reading. This is because Vonnegut chose to veil his anti-war sentiments in heavy metaphors throughout the novel. However, once the metaphors are unraveled, and compared to Vonnegut's own military service and the actual things he said about this novel, then the meaning of it becomes very clear.
"Slaughterhouse Five" is about a man named Billy Pilgrim, who survived the bombing of the city of Dresden, Germany (one of the most violent and powerful attacks on any city during World War Two) because he had been captured by the Germans and was being held prisoner in an old meat processing facility known as Slaughterhouse Five. It was one of the few buildings to survive the bombing, and he, his fellow prisoners, and their German captors made it through the Allied bombing of the city physically unscathed. However, seeing the devastation of the city afterward, including the thousands of women and children civilians who were killed in it, changed Billy, and this change is first noted when he comes out of the slaughterhouse and finds the town to be completely quite, except for the tweeting of a bird (Vonnegut 28). This cheerful tweeting amid such destruction is meant to convey the senselessness of war (this is according to Vonnegut himself), and how sometimes there is nothing to be said about war that makes any more sense than a bird chirping in the silence.
The way the story is told is also part of its anti-war message. Unlike most traditional novels, "Slaughterhouse Five" jumps around in time. It is not told in a linear fashion. The ending of Billy's story is known by Chapter Two, but there is still a lot of story left to tell. Billy himself seems to be "unstuck" in time, and can see his whole life as if from a distance. This jumping around from point to point, without much of it making sense is a metaphor for how war makes no sense. There is rarely a defined beginning, middle, and end to it in any particular order. Vonnegut, who himself was involved in the bombing of Dresden, expressly conveyed this in interviews with his critics who complained about the non-linear nature of the novel.
Further, there is the reason behind Billy's temporal problems. After returning home from the war and living a mundane, boring married life in the 1950s and 1960s, he is kidnapped by aliens who see in the fourth dimension, rather than the third, as humans do. They are able to see their entire lives from a distance, like Billy comes to do. The aliens are dismayed that humans believe they have free will, because the aliens know this to not be true. They see everything as pre-determined because everything has already happened. Their unique perspective allows them to see this. While they can not change anything about their lives, they can choose to focus on certain parts of it that they can see in the fourth dimension. Because humans believe they have free will, they will always have war, so the aliens say, because they will always believe they can change things, when time can not be changed (according to the aliens).
Once Billy comes to know the aliens, he is able to see things from their perspective. The aliens are pacifists, but only because they know war is futile because it won't change anything. Billy feels the bombing of Dresden was futile, and it was. It did not shorten the war or have any positive effect on it on either side whatsoever, but instead resulted in thousands of needless deaths of civilians (Zehfuss 201). Billy tries to take his story to the media, only to be killed by a ray gun as he gives a speech on the subject to a crowd. But Billy knew this was coming, as he was able to see in four dimensions. The irony is that his assassination came about because of the time he spent in Slaughterhouse Five in the war. One of his fellow captives was given wooden clogs to wear by the Germans, which caused him to develop gangrene, which killed him. He told another fellow captive before he died that this was Billy's fault, and that captive swore revenge. It was that captive, decades later, who killed Billy. Thus, war can have long-range effects, as well, long after the war has ended. It destroys long after the actual war is over, either in terms of human capital or in the difficulties in rebuilding societies (as Billy saw in Europe during the war, when he witnessed how it was still struggling to recover from World War One).
Vonnegut's book was written in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam war, when anti-war sentiment about that military struggle was at its highest. It was the perfect time for such a novel, and those who were able to pick up on its anti-war metaphors used it as one of their banners for their cause. Vonnegut did not want the United States to be involved in another military struggle, as he already knew the futility of war from his own experience in WWII. "Slaughterhouse Five" was his attempt to show the world how futile war of any kind was, how pointless, how cruel, and how demeaning to humanity in general, in the hopes that it would push the U.S. toward pulling out of Vietnam (Sumner 92).
Sigfried Sassoon was another former soldier who became disillusioned with war after his experiences with it and turned to writing to express how he felt about it. Sassoon was a soldier in World War One, British, and a volunteer. Though he had expressed anti-war sentiments before the war began, he was inspired by the patriotic propaganda being put out by the government before their engagement in the war, and once Britain was formally involved in the war, his patriotism led him to join the military (Sassoon 14). His experiences on the battlefield soon showed him that the patriotism which led him to volunteer was misguided, and due solely to his being susceptible to the government's propaganda. He saw that there was no glory in war, such as he had been lead to believe. Instead, his poetry about the war is full of gritty realism, all about rotting corpses, body parts strewn about the battlefields, injured soldiers who would be disabled for life, soldiers who died in vain for nothing, and the horrible conditions of the battlefields themselves. He wanted people to know the truth of war, no matter how unpleasant or un-pretty it was, and felt it his duty to inform them of this through his poetry (Sassoon 19).
While Sassoon wrote a lot of anti-war poetry, three in particular stand out as examples of his realistic technique with is words and his anti-war feelings. These poems are "Attack," "They," and "The Hero." In "Attack," the poem describes in a short, very brutal way, the feelings of soldiers who are leading an attack on the enemy. There is no glory felt in their actions, no sense of pride in their country or in their cause. They are following orders because they have to, but they already know their actions are futile and the cause is pointless. They do not want to be there. The poem itself is short, just like many military battles are short, but there is really not much to say on the subject. Sassoon nails it completely in his few words, just as would happen on a battlefield. He discusses their fear of the attack they must launch, their hope that they can somehow avoid it, and their silent cries to Jesus to make the horror of the battle stop once it starts. That neatly sums up what most soldiers were probably feeling about the war, and what most soldiers have probably felt about most wars in history.