Tuesday, January 25, 2011
January 25, 2011: So It Goes?
War stems from the worst attributes of human societies and communities, from the most divisive and negative forms of the things that can ideally unite and connect us (faith, nation, history, and many more), and it is thus no surprise that it consistently yields the worst and most horrific kinds of actions. Yet while it is easy for us Americans to recognize the existence of such wartime actions when they are undertaken by brutal dictators and regimes (ie, the Holocaust), and more difficult but still possible for us to admit that our own soldiers and government can take such actions when ill-advised or controversial wars go poorly (ie, My Lai or Abu Ghraib), I think our national narratives of World War II (to cite the most overt and clear example) still illustrate that we long to believe in the possibility of a purely good war, one in which those worst actions could never be taken by our own, entirely right side. Yet while any historical analysis must take into account the specifics of each war, including ways in which the war is indeed more potentially justified and necessary, events like the firebombing of Dresden exemplify the continuing presence of the horrific actions in even a “good war.”
As with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and (especially) Nagasaki, World War II historians and scholars have long debated the relative necessity, military and strategic value and effects, and potential war crime status of the Dresden bombing, which took place between February 13th and 15th of 1945, which featured nearly 4000 tons of bombs dropped on the German city by RAF and USAF planes, and which created a 15-square-mile firestorm that killed an estimate 23-24,000 inhabitants (many of them civilians). I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough about the bombing’s details to weigh in on those questions, but I think that the entirety of the debate can elide the inescapable fact that the bombing was horrible and brutal in any case. That is, while it might well have been more militarily effective than (for example) My Lai, the fact remains that tens of thousands of civilians were killed, that a beautiful and culturally rich city was essentially razed, that the destruction wreaked on Dresden stretched far beyond any military meanings it might include; arguments that the Germans were doing the same to London with their own rockets during this period, while accurate, only highlight how much such horrific actions become the norm for every side during every war. While it is understandably (if sadly) necessary during a war for citizens of one nation not to think of an enemy nation’s citizens and cities as just as human and worth protecting as their own, it is I would argue crucial for us to remember that basic concept in the aftermath and memories of any and all wars.
If such broadly communal reflections were to emerge out of the ashes of Dresden, they would not be the first amazing human achievement to stem from its horrors; that honor would have to go to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; or, the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969). Vonnegut was a prisoner of war held at Dresden, and so witnessed the firebombing and its aftermath firsthand; as he admits in the book’s meta-fictional first chapter, he attempted to write the novel for nearly twenty years before finally completing and publishing it. The resulting masterpiece is literally impossible to categorize or fit into one generic box: it includes science fiction concepts, time travel, and sequences set on an alien planet; features some of the best uses of black humor in any American text; includes a profoundly realistic portrayal of war and trauma and their lingering psychological and emotional effects; features from time to time pencil drawings that complement and deepen the novel’s style and themes; and so on. Yet at its core, I think Vonnegut’s work is most fully engaged with the seemingly contradictory but crucial duality with which I ended the prior paragraph: that war inevitably produces the worst kinds of violence and destruction and horror, as illustrated by the novel’s most repeated phrase, “So it goes,” used whenever death is mentioned in any context; and yet the possibility of a human and communal response not only in the face of those horrors, but because of and through them, as exemplified by Vonnegut’s novel itself and its ability to use storytelling to push back on the horrors and imagine (even if only in moments) something very different and much more ideal.
As the United States moves toward its tenth year in Afghanistan while directing drone strikes at multiple other nations, it can feel overwhelmingly difficult not to give into the logic of “So it goes,” not to see war and its accompanying horrors as unavoidable and constant parts of our world and identity. And perhaps they are—but if so, that only makes it that much more important to highlight and push back on those horrors, to refuse to accept either that they are simply necessary or that they can be excused as long as they happen to the enemy or are undertaken by us. There are few more exemplary contexts for those ideas than Dresden, and fewer still texts that push back more tragically and beautifully than Vonnegut’s. More tomorrow, on the most repetitive novel in American literary history and why I’m glad I read every crazy-making word.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A brief but very rich interview with one of the leading historians of the firebombing: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,607524,00.html
2) Google books version of Slaughterhouse: http://books.google.com/books?id=GKPktrYG7sUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=kurt+vonnegut+slaughterhouse+five&source=bl&ots=ookv4y76o5&sig=nCmxyp9JMRvnai3FUrvNyE5dovY&hl=en&ei=fUo-Tdj8OIKB8gbj2NGfCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) OPEN: Pretty big and tough stuff here. Any thoughts, connections, disagreements to share?