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And So It Still Goes

As night enveloped the city of Dresden, Germany, the buzz of approaching aircraft filled the streets. From 17,000 feet up, the planes, hundreds of them, began to release their loads:  tons of incendiary, high-explosive, and conventional bombs. As the weapons pummeled the city, huge firestorms broke out. The intense heat created a vacuum that sucked the air out of the bodies of some residents. Others were charred to a crisp, never even having time to move before the fast-moving flames and searing heat engulfed their homes.

The author and subject

And as readers of one of the most influential novels of the 1960s know, Kurt Vonnegut was there.

Vonnegut was an American POW on February 13, 1945, when the infamous Dresden firebombing began. He had been one of 150 prisoners sent to a slaughterhouse in the city that the Nazis had turned into a factory to produce a malt-based, high-protein syrup. Holed up in bunker beneath the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut survived the devastating attack, then was given the job of “body miner”—he combed the rubble looking for dead civilians.

The biographer

Vonnegut’s experiences led to his writing Slaughterhouse-Five, a book 20 years in the making that finally appeared in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. His witnessing of the Dresden horrors, his biographer Charles Shields asserts, also led to something like, if not actual, PTSD. That trauma, combined with Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide when he was about to leave home to serve overseas (on Mother’s Day, no less); his father’s seeming indifference; and Vonnegut’s own sense that he was both unable to meet expectations and didn’t fully receive the praise he deserved, fed a depression that haunted the author throughout his life.

Shields was in Santa Fe to promote his authorized biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, the first-ever of the writer who touched so many young Americans during the Vietnam era, and who continues to do so today. One of those 1960s teens who came under Vonnegut’s spell was Shields, and he described the “rocky friendship” that began after he finally convinced the aging, chain-smoking author to cooperate on a bio.

The biographer recounted getting phone calls from Vonnegut late at night, from a man whose second wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, cut off his access to some of his old friends. To Shields, the calls were more the grasping for human contact from a lonely, 80-something man than the attempts by a biographical subject to shape how his story would be told. Shields described how early on in their relationship, Vonnegut went off on family wounds suffered decades before. The biographer-as-therapist, I wrote in my notes, and Shields then seemed to affirm this by offering his diagnosis, describing his subject/patient as a “still-aggrieved adolescent.”

From what Shields said and what I’ve read about the book (I have not read the bio itself), he did not pull punches. Vonnegut’s affairs, his drinking, his less-than-sensitive parenting: they are all there.  Yet it’s apparent that Shields has a deep respect for the lonely, one-time suicidal, much beloved-and-also dismissed author. And he appreciates all that Vonnegut endured. The man, Shields said simply, withstood “so much pain.”

Dresden, of course, was the source of a great deal of that pain. But Vonnegut’s ordeal also gave him the book that launched his career as a best-selling author. Slaughterhouse-Five will always resonate, because Americans will always, seemingly, get involved in wars that lead to atrocities. Though, interestingly, it was our frequent partners in crime, the British, who called for the Dresden bombing.

There was a strategic element to it: The Soviets were beginning their march toward Berlin and they wanted the Allies to bomb German communication and transport centers. Dresden, among several other cities, fit that bill. Winston Churchill was particularly eager to help the Soviets and weaken German morale with major attacks on urban centers. British planes began the bombing on Dresden that created a fiery glow visible hundreds of miles away. The next day, when American bombers arrived to finish the job, they had trouble seeing targets because of all the smoke and flames.

The bombing

Historians don’t doubt that there were military targets in the city, but the leveling of Dresden and the killing of up to 60,000 civilians appalled many people after the fact. Churchill, the following month, tried to distance himself from the attack, and in recent years, some people have called the Dresden bombing (and the similar firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, carried out by U.S. planes) a war crime. The BBC has an interview with a former RAF bomber pilot who took umbrage at the charge. But there’s no question that the “total war” effort of the Allies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Axis civilians, not even counting the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego in Slaughterhouse-Five—and probably to Vonnegut himself—the historical debates don’t mean much. To him, the bombing was an all-too-real nightmare that came to dominate his life. A horror no one should have experienced then, or should ever experience. Shields calls SH-5 Vonnegut’s best book, and probably few would argue that. The book, and the event it’s based on, shaped the life of a funny, touching, satirical, and sometimes-profound American writer.

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