Thursday, November 29, 2012

Speech I gave regarding Slaughterhouse-Five.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut
published in 1969

Specific Purpose/Goal:
 I want my audience to understand the importance of the book and how it was a book of its time and period, that it continues to be important to this day.


Attention Getter

Poo-tee-weet.  Slaughterhouse-Five is not fiction.  Yes, the story is set in a fictional setting, but the people and the majority of the events all actually happened.  The time travel and space aliens were a necessary hook that was needed in 1969 in order to engage with a public that was divided over the war in Vietnam. 


Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut
Written for 24 years until it was finally published in 1969.

Audience Adaptation

I am qualified to talk about this book because I am from a family that all serves in the military.   Beyond that I have always loved science fiction and have read thousands of sci-fi books. 

We should care about this book because it touches the very core of what makes us human.  We keep doing what we know we should not do.  About how limited we humans are. This book is a book about ending war, but it was written knowing that such a thing is impossible.  Must like the futility of war, we also engage in the futility of ending war. 

The first thing I am going to talk about are the main themes of the book

The second thing I am going to discuss is the setting of the book when it was finally published.

Finally I am going to talk about why the book continues to be important to this day.

The first thing I am going to talk about are the main themes of this book.  The book is unashamedly anti-war.  Most soldiers are antiwar, but none so much as Vonnegut. But the book recognizes that we will always have war. In the introductory chapter a friend's wife forces him to promise to not to glorify war because she doesn't want her children to die in a war, so he devotes the book to her, promising to title it, The children's Crusade, winning her over.

The title and a few references to "The Children's Crusade" got me to look up this event that I had never heard of before.  I am sure that many people don't know about this swindle until they read this book as well.  Approximately the same number of children were enslaved as lost their lives in the fire bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was firebombed by his own side.  He was very upset that the details of this bombing had been kept from the public for many years after the event.  His book helped to put a spotlight on the events of that day and how wrong they were. 

Vonnegut learned in college that there were no villains (Vonnegut, 15) and so he never put a villain in any book that he ever wrote.  The characters in the story are all based on real people that Vonnegut met in the war.  But they are composite characters, stereotypes, everything of one trait pulled into a single character and then named so as to obviously reflect that trait.  Wildhack,  Lizzardo, Weary, Trout.  The German soldiers are just as pathetic as the Americans, either too old or too young, so they are not portrayed as evil villians so we can feel good when they die.

The main character in the book, Billy Pilgrim, is a goofy unhero.  He basically just responds to events as they happen without really planning for anything or thinking anything through.  When things get tough he switches to another time. When that doesn't help he retreats to the safety of a mental hospital.  Billy doesn't physically travel through time, his time travelling is described in a way that is similar to daydreaming. 

The time travel gimick is used to good effect in order to feed us the events of that horrible day in Dresden a little bit at a time, then to redirect our minds to some other more pleasant time.  But by the end of the story we know exactly what happened to Dresden on the day it was firebombed and we can vividly imagine what the city looked like before and after it was bombed and how few escaped, because we know that nobody got to the inn from the city, but the few Americans and their guard.  We know that corpses of a firebombing look like charred logs.

The aliens in the book, from the planet Tralfamadore, that kidnap Billy and take him to a love nest with a porn star, are exactly the same as the aliens in a science fiction book that Billy read in a mental hospital.    The Tralfamadorians see all of time at once, like the Temped character in the Weed of Time.  They focus their perception on the beautiful moments.  They tell Billy that nothing really matters because one of their test pilots is going to blow up the Universe by pushing a button to start an experimental craft.

Secondly is the setting of the book when it was finally published. 

1969.  It is the greatest year in human history, we felt that we could do anything, that anything was possible.   This was the year we walked on the moon.  The Woodstock concert happened, an event which not been topped to this day.  This was the height of the hippie movement in America, with free love and peace.  People where doing drugs that they believed where expanding their minds to higher planes of understanding.  PCP, LSD, Mescaline...

The year 1969 has to be the most often mentioned year in songs.   

"The 25th Of December 1969" - May Blitz
"Summer of '69" - Bryan Adams
1969 - The Stooges with Iggy Pop
Running on Empty-Jackson Brown
Lonely Boy-Andrew Gold
Hotel California-Eagles

Against this backdrop was the Vietnam war, a war where America won every battle, but ended up losing the war.  Nixon would begin carpet bombing Cambodia without the permission of Congress in the following year  Essentially he was waging his own illegal personal war against an entire country.

With the end of the Vietnam war, the last of the hippies took off their tie died shirts, put away their tambourines, got jobs, and sold out to the man.

All of this combined to elevate the book to amazing popularity in a very short time.  An instant classic, it allowed Vonnegut to write full time and enjoy acclaim and success in his writing career.

My final point is that this book continues to be important to this day.  According to the American Library Association, Slaughterhouse 5 is the 29th most banned or challenged book in America.  There was even a challenged last year in Missouri ( that resulted in 350 books being donated to the 350 students that were denied access to this classic book.

The book is challenged based on it being “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian” according to a circuit judge and “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy" according to a school board in Levittown, New York (

Indeed the book is anti-American because it is antiwar.  We Americans have an unfortunate tendency to glorify war and soldiers.  Never has this been more true than today. 

In conclusion

"War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend."
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

We still fight wars to this day, so in that the book failed.  But nobody has firebombed a city as we did to Dresden in 1944, since this book was published.  So maybe by bringing a light to that shameful incident the book has indirectly acted to moderate war.  And maybe less people mindlessly glorify war than once did as well. 


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