February 13: On the evening of this day in 1945, British and U.S. air forces began their 48-hour bombing of Dresden, Germany. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is the most famous fictional record of what resulted — a firestorm that destroyed 85% of the “Florence by the Elbe” and killed upwards of 135,000 people, most of them civilians and prisoners-of-war. Vonnegut and his fellow-POWs hid in an underground cold storage room of the slaughterhouse where they were quartered. Their old job had been to make a vitamin supplement for pregnant women; their new one was to dig up whatever corpses they could find, from shelters that “looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting in chairs, all dead.”
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade was published in 1969, Vonnegut saying that it took him twenty-five years to be able to face or articulate his experience. It came out to Woodstock and the My Lai massacre, and it became an instant popular classic, many looking to the optometrist-time traveler Billy Pilgrim for some perspective:
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.
My father died many years ago now — of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
When Vonnegut published the 1991 essay collection Fates Worse Than Death, his Preface carried the updated perspective:
The Russian Empire has collapsed. All the weapons we thought we might have to use on the USSR we are now applying without stint and unopposed to Iraq, a nation one-sixteenth that populous. A speech our President delivered yesterday on the subject of why he had no choice but to attack Iraq won him the highest rating in television history, a record held many years ago, I remember, by Mary Martin in Peter Pan….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.