Travel back in time for an interview with Slaughterhouse-Five’s author Kurt Vonnegut

I have come unstuck in time. I have travelled back to the year 1991, where my seven-year-old self has managed to contact author Kurt Vonnegut, sixty-nine at the time and on a lecture tour. I asked him some questions in anticipation of LML’s November 2014 Vancouver premiere of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. What follows is from our conversation*.
Matt Clarke: It’s hard to approach SH5 as a play without starting just where you yourself begin the book, with your own personal experience in WWII. Can you tell me about it?
Kurt Vonnegut: I was a battalion scout, a PFC, who was captured on the border of Germany in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Thus did I happen to be a labourer under guard in Dresden when it was firebombed on February 13, 1945.
MC: What happened there?
KV: Americans, several of whom I have since met, dropped high explosives in the daytime to make kindling for the thousands of incendiaries to come. The British came that night with the incendiaries. Their target? The whole city. It was hard to miss. And the city became one flame, with tornadoes dancing in the suburbs like whirling dervishes.
MC: You’ve actually met some of the Americans who started the firebombing?
KV: The man who interviewed me for admissions to the University of Chicago after the war was one of the Americans who attacked in the daytime, virtually unopposed. He said, “We hated to do it.”
MC: It must have been tough to look him in the eye.
KV: The firebombing of Dresden was an emotional event without a trace of military importance. I fully understand the bombardiers’ lack of discrimination as to who or what was underneath them. They had a point: whoever was down there, whether by actively supporting Hitler or simply failing to overthrow him, was directly or indirectly playing a part, however small, in Nazi crimes against humanity. Among the unidentified, not-even-counted dead in the cellars of Dresden there were, without doubt, war criminals or loathsomely proud relatives of war criminals SS and Gestapo, and so on. But I have to say that I felt no pride or satisfaction while carrying corpses from cellars to great funeral pyres while friends and relatives of the missing watched. They may have thought that it served me right to do such gruesome work at gunpoint, since it was my side in the war which had made it a necessity. But who knows what they thought? Their minds may have been blank. I know mine was.
MC: So what’s changed about war since then? Obviously you wrote the book during the Vietnam War, which had a pretty different vibe than WWII.
KV: It used to be that veterans could shock their parent when they came home, as Ernest Hemmingway did, by announcing that everything about war was repulsive and stupid and dehumanizing. But now, thanks to modern communications, the people of every industrialized nation are nauseated by the idea of war by the time they are ten years old. What makes Vietnam veterans so somehow spooky? They have never had illusions about war. They are the first soldiers in history who know even in childhood, from having heard and seen so many pictures of actual and restaged battles, that war is meaningless butchery of ordinary people just like themselves.
MC: Yet we still have lots and lots of wars and bombings.
KV: I spoke about the firebombing at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. A woman said to me after my speech, “Nobody should ever be bombed.” I replied, “Nothing could be more obvious.”
MC: What gives you peace then, personally?
KV: No matter where I am, and even if I have no clear idea where I am, and no matter how much trouble I may be in, I can achieve a blank and shining serenity if only I can reach the very edge of a natural body of water. The very edge of anything from a rivulet to an ocean says to me: “Now you know where you are. Now you know which way to go. You will soon be home now.”
MC: I’m sorry to do this, but people in the year 2014 really love lists of things. Would you mind rattling off a few good ways for our modern leaders to help save the world?
KV: 1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without killing it.
5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean and stupid.
7. And so on. Or else.
MC: Thank you for your time.
KV: Thank you for your attention.
*The above interview is obviously fabricated. Kurt Vonnegut’s responses come from excerpts from his “autobiographical collage,” Fates Worse Than Death (1991, Berkley)