“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. [. . .] Billy is spastic in time” (23).
Is he? Or is Billy unable to come to terms with his war experiences? Or is Billy’s unstuckness a reflection of Vonnegut’s own inability to recall the actual firebombing of Dresden? As Vonnegut said in an NPR interview in 2003, “You can’t remember pure nonsense [. . .] the pointless destruction of that city.” And so on.
In the fourteen years that I have been in my current teaching position, numerous students have joined the armed services. My first year at this high school was one year after 9-11. Students felt a need to join. As a school community, we have been fortunate that not a single former student has died while serving. At least not a physical death. But those students who joined in the early 2000s, who were deployed into areas of combat are not the same students who walked across the graduation stage. Those personalities have ceased to exist. So it goes.
I have former students who have attempted suicide; have become alcoholics, homeless, some roaming the beaches of California probably wishing that they had been abducted and transported to Tralfamadore; have served, been honorably discharged, and still searching for the stability that they believed the service would provide. And so on.
My father joined the navy in 1958. A safe time to enlist since the U.S. was between conflicts. My father was seventeen years old, a senior in high school who hated school. With no other prospects, he skipped school knowing that he would be kicked out of school for skipping and went straight to the recruiting office. He may not have been able to articulate what he was seeking, but the navy provided an escape. He was stationed in Key West. The closest he came to battle was being on his ship, the U.S.S Bushnell, while the movie Operation Petticoat was filmed in the same port.
My father-in-law was drafted in the late 1960s. One of his brothers was also drafted. So as to not station both men in combat, the brother was sent to Alaska; my father-in-law was sent to Vietnam. I know that he saw battle, but he rarely spoke about it. When I met him, he was a recovering alcoholic working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor. He seemed normal. He was as normal as my father who had never seen battle. Except that my father-in-law couldn’t stand the smell of Asian food and would not eat rice.
In the NPR interview, Vonnegut explains that the Vietnam war “freed writers” to write about war. He “made war look so ugly” because “the truth can be really powerful stuff.”
Eventually my father-in-law learned to eat rice. And, eventually, my father-in-law developed renal (kidney) cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, insufficient evidence exists to point at Agent Orange as a cause of renal cancer in Vietnam veterans. And I don’t know if my father-in-law was ever exposed to Agent Orange. He was recovering from the renal cancer on his kidneys when he died from the renal cancer on his lungs. Because renal cancer can spread to the lungs. So it goes.
As I said earlier, as a school community in the past fourteen years we have been fortunate to not have a death related to military service. As a county, however, we have not been so lucky. A young man originally from Oakland, Illinois, died from wounds suffered from an IED explosion. His mother is a teacher at our middle school. As his body was transported back to the area, all the students from the high school and middle school went out to the road to stand at respectful attention. For many, it was their closest connection to 9-11 and the conflict in the Middle East. And so on.
On that day, and for a few days before, I worried about a Westboro Baptist Church presence. They are the church that protests at military funerals in an attempt to spread their message that the United States will continue to suffer as long as it tolerates homosexuality. While I could cite that information somewhere on the Internet, I had a personal conversation with the daughter of the founder, the daughter who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that picketing funerals is covered by the First Amendment. While the church was not picketing military funerals when we had that conversation, she made it clear that they viewed all publicity and all forums as acceptable ways to spread their message. And all messengers are acceptable, including the children. Another Children’s Crusade. And so on.
When the case went before the Supreme Court, ten years after I had last lived in Topeka, Kansas, and last had to work with her, I knew that the WBC would win their appeal. They are First Amendment lawyers; they are not stupid people. They are just passionate in a narrow-minded bigoted way. Much like any person who believes his or her views are the only right views. When the leader of the church died a couple years ago, he had been ousted from his leadership position. The rumor, or maybe the hope, was that he had recanted his position against homosexuality. So it goes.
According to the Tralfamadorians, “[a]ll moments, past, presents, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (27). Literally? Only the Tralfamadorians will be able to tell us. But let’s look at history. According to Vonnegut, “war is murder” and that is why it was and is so difficult to write about, so “unspeakable” (NPR interview). Every war and military conflict in the past involved murder. Every war and military conflict in the present involves murder. And every war and military conflict in the future will involve murder. So it goes. It just depends which side you are on whether you call it murder or justifiable. And so on.
Eighteen years old is considered an adult in our society (our American society), but “wars were fought by babies” (Vonnegut 106) who could only deal with the ugliness and the murder by acting like robots who “had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground” (Vonnegut 168). Stephen Crane utilizes similar machinery metaphors in The Red Badge of Courage, even though he had never witnessed war. But Edgar Derby had witnessed war, and he reads Red Badge while waiting for Billy Pilgrim to recuperate (Vonnegut 105). And students who have witnessed war via social media are frequently assigned Red Badge as an example of quality American literature. And so it goes.
A few years ago I analyzed the war literature included in junior English/American literature anthologies expecting patriotic and heroic propaganda. But the literature, the short stories, the excerpts, the poems, the memoirs, portray war as ugly. As unspeakable. And yet our students still voluntarily join the armed services. And so on. To them, literature is fiction; it is not real. The Children’s Crusade continues past, present, and future.
Slaughterhouse-Five could be post Vietnam literature or post 9-11 literature or post Civil War literature. Our children join believing they are adults. Believing they will be heroes. Believing they are the good guys. And if we are lucky, they return to us a little wiser but otherwise unscarred—physically and emotionally healthy. But I worry about each one of my students who joins. In my opinion, the really lucky ones never leave the States. They may be disappointed, but their smiles are intact. They may continue to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” (Vonnegut 117) like the Tralfamadorians. For all of my students joining the military, I want to be able to write “and so on” after their names and stories. I hope that I never have to follow their names and stories with “so it goes.”
Did I become unstuck in time? Have a couple spastic hours writing this blog? I don’t think so. But my mind did wander. I visited a number of places and former students. I traveled backward in time. And I traveled forward in time to events that I hope take place.
Kurt Vonnegut was one of the authors that I really wanted to meet in person. That never happened. But I’ve listened to a recording of his voice. And I’ve read his words. I believe his words. And so on.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Laurel, 1988. Print.