Vonnegut, everything you (don’t) want to know about war

November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kurt Vonnegut Jr, born in Indianapolis and died in New York in 2007. The anniversary does not seem to excite anyone. Fortunately, the publisher Bompiani is publishing the complete work, edited by Vincenzo Mantovani, translator of Vonnegut for decades. In these days Slaughterhouse n. 5 or the children’s crusade (Bompiani, pages 192, € 22) in a beautiful graphic novel version by Ryan North and Albert Monteys. Vonnegut has told everything we do not want to know about the war, and the centenary falls at a time of dramatic international crisis. Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, beyond the euphemism, is an invasion. China prepares to reach out to Taiwan. In the Balkans, relations between Kosovo and Serbia are tense and a new clash is feared. Italian pacifism is in confusion. It was divided into different squares, which declared war without too many words. From the dustbin of social networks, but also from other media, the voices of improvised geopolitical experts rise. It is a mystery where they find time to inform themselves, as they spend the day “explaining” apodictic theories on Twitter. Thus we are witnessing the parody of a debate where mutual tolerance is banned. Anyone who recognizes Putin some reason is a warmonger and sold to the dictator. Those who support the need to support Ukraine not only in words are a warmonger and a man who has been sold to NATO. If it were that simple …

Kurt Vonnegut Jr was of German descent and believed in the American dream. He volunteers in the Second World War and ends up where the game is still open: the Ardennes, in Europe. He arrives just in time to “enjoy” the Nazi counter-offensive, the last desperate attempt to turn the tide of the conflict. Private Kurt is taken prisoner and sent to Dresden. When he gets out of the wagon, and walks in a queue through the streets of the center, he gasps. For a boy who comes from Indiana, the “German Florence on the Elbe” is a cultural shock: he has never seen anything so beautiful. Prisoner Kurt is assigned to clean up a food factory. Full belly guaranteed. Together with other American soldiers, he sleeps in a former slaughterhouse, number 5. In February 1945, the war comes to an end. Hitler was defeated. Germany suffers carpet bombing. Dresden has always been spared. The Russians are close, the city is defenseless but continues in its life, which retains a pinch of worldliness. Citizens are convinced that Dresden enjoys an undeclared special status: who would bomb such a jewel, which has little or no strategic value? The allies instead arrive in three waves, between 13 and 15 February, and unload tons of incendiary devices. There is no agreement on the number of victims. Vonnegut writes 250 thousand. Kurt is saved by accident. The prisoners sleep in the basement slaughterhouse. The German guards decide not to open the doors and resist down there. For this they are saved. When they leave the Slaughterhouse, Vonnegut says, Dresden is gone. It’s like being on the moon. Here is the war in all its injustice and ambiguity: on some occasions, the good guys, the Allies, behaved like the bad guys, the Nazis. Vonnegut takes note of it, without questioning who the good ones are, after all he was a voluntary party, as we have already mentioned. The massacre has no reason other than to undermine the moral resistance of the Germans. Is the goal worth the lives of 250,000 civilians? Well, there has been, and still is, a debate about it. There are those who remember the five million children who died to defeat Nazism: why add more useless victims, when the war is in fact won but still underway due to Hitler’s will to die, dragging everyone into the vortex? Others reply: Dresden did not accelerate the end of the war. The bombing was a show of force with which Winston Churchill aimed to warn the Soviets: beware, we will not have the atomic bomb like the Americans, but we can destroy entire cities with conventional weapons. How complicated the world is: catchphrases explain nothing.

Vonnegut had a scientific background and was employed in the General Motors press office. After the war, he begins to publish short stories and novels. Writing, for him, has nothing romantic about it: it’s a job. For this reason, he does not disdain glossy magazines (Cosmopolitan, for example) and not even science fiction magazines. This choice causes the total indifference of the critics. Vonnegut is simply a non-writer despite the growing success of his books published directly in paperback and sold on station kiosks. In 1969, however, he changes everything. Vonnegut, after returning to Dresden in 1967, finally finds the words to tell what he saw in the Second World War. Mistaken for a pacifist manifesto, Slaughterhouse n. 5 or the children’s crusade becomes a bestseller. Against the war, but voluntary against Hitler, pacifist but pessimist, against injustices but anti-egalitarian (read the story Harrison Bergeron to get an idea), radical chic that had little chic and even radical, Vonnegut questioned himself bitterly on his lifelong success: “The tremendously expensive and meticulously planned Dresden atrocity was so foolish that only one person on the entire planet benefited from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which made me a lot of money and which built my reputation, whatever it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. My job is fine, huh? ‘ Rovelli incomprehensible to commentators who have done nothing, seen nothing, understood nothing.

Vonnegut, everything you (don’t) want to know about war