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Kurt Vonnegut   (April 16, 2007)

Astute reader Robert H. asked last week if I would comment on the passing of American writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Sometimes you come across an idea so original that it doesn't seem invented but only discovered, and Kurt Vonnegut had an extraordinary number of those ideas. My favorite is ice-nine from the novel Cat's Cradle . Though categorized as science fiction, it is more broadly a satire of the Cold War, religion, global inequality and much more. It is unexpected, entertaining and very deft in its imaginative parsing of the absurdities of human life.

The book widely regarded as his classic is Slaughterhouse-Five , another wildly creative confabulation of science fiction, World War II, philosophy (fate, time, destiny, etc.) and outrageous Dickensian character names (sample: Montana Wildhack).

As with his fellow writers Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller, World War II informed his work and his fame. Though Mailer achieved fame in the 50s with The Naked and the Dead, and friends Heller and Vonnegut only later in the 60s, I think the war is the key context of their seminal books and their era.

It is difficult for those of us who have lived through two "background" wars--Vietnam and Iraq--to appreciate just how deeply World War II permeated American life and culture, revolutionizing technology, the role of women in the workforce, awareness of the world beyond North America, America's role in the world (from isolationist to bulwark against totalitarianism) and migration of southern African-Americans to the industrial centers of war production.

A full 10% of the entire population was in uniform, and "the home front" was mobilized around war production to an extent which is inconceivable today: autos were no longer manufactured, gasoline and other commodities were rationed, and people had "Victory Gardens" and bought War Bonds to fund the war effort.

As a result of the global reach of the war, millions of young men (and a large number of young women) experienced other cultures for the first time. The brutality of the war, and its oppressive aftermath (the Cold War stand-off between the Soviet Union and the U.S.) fashioned a fertile background for an absurdist view of human existance--themes which continued reverberating through the culture for 30+ years. The "great book" of the 70s (mentioned here previously) was Gravity's Rainbow, a massive post-modern riff on the "buzz bombs" of the last years of the war (early unguided rockets launched by the Germans as a terro weapon against Britain).

World War II launched a generation of writers who remained in the public eye their entire careers. In contrast, the Vietnam War, though longer in duration, did not have nearly the same impact. Though there are no doubt many wonderful writers who served in Vietnam, the only one to my knowledge who launched a career from his book on the war is Philip Caputo. For whatever reason, no writer from the Vietnam Era has packed the cultural impact of Heller's Catch-22 or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five .

I think the reason may well be the nature of the Vietnam War as a "war on the cheap" in a complex, poorly understood culture. Though cast as a straightforward Cold War battle against Communist aggression, this "one size fits all" distillation did not match the multiple realities of Vietnam, which was not a France taken over by Nazis but a nation arbitrarily partioned in 1945 as "spoils of war." The South, supposedly the "democratic" half worth millions of lives and billions in treasure, was as corrupt as any failed state in Africa, and the political elite the U.S. supported lacked any popular legitimacy.

This is not to say the North Vietnamese Communists or the Viet Cong were the heroes in the piece; on the contrary, they relied heavily on terrorist killings to win the "hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese peasantry. My point is that the World War II template did not fit in Vietnam, and this eventually created a pervasive disillusion with the government's explanation for the war.

Vietnam was fought "on the cheap" because no sacrifice was demanded of the public "back home," and the elite's sons were excluded from the fighting by draft deferments. In World War II it was considered your patriotic duty to join, especially if you were an elite son; of the Kennedy brothers, it was the eldest, Joseph, who was slated for higher office by his domineering father; but he was killed in the war, and so the mantle fell to Jack, who was very nearly killed in the Pacific Theatre.

No such noblesse oblige existed in the Vietnam Era; if the elite served at all in those years, it was safely behind a typewriter or in a cushy National Guard posting--service, like the entire war, "on the cheap," a deceptive service perfectly aligned with the deceptive war being presented by our government as "winnable," "just," "if we don't fight them in Vietnam we'll be fighting them in Los Angeles," etc., a war paid for not with savings and War Bonds but with borrowed money (deficit spending) so no one would have to sacrifice a thing for the war--except those fighting it.

What I am suggesting here is the horror of World War II spawned a generation of writers who distilled the essence of the war and its absurdist aftermath for the culture because so many of that generation had shared their experience. Even those "on the home front" had some shared experience of the war effort and its consequences.

In contrast, the Vietnam War was unknown and distant to a "home front" busy consuming and living large while the draftees fought and died in a hellish non-conventional war a world away. As a result, There was no shared generational experience except of deception and defeat.

Now we find ourselves again in a war of deception, poorly conceived and executed, based on misconceptions and half-truths, fought "on the cheap" by a relatively isolated, small part of the American public, paid for with borrowed money so no sacrifice is required of the American public at large.

Will a Vonnegut or Heller or Mailer arise from this war and this era? We can hope so, but experience suggests that wars fought "on the cheap" end with a disillusion which the culture wants only to forget, not explore or understand.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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