Julia Keller: Many wars, a singular sorrow: Vonnegut's vision





[Tribune cultural critic.]

He claimed it was about World War II, but it couldn't have been. Not really. It was Vietnam, right? Had to be. The pointlessness. The gore. The absurdity. That novel had Vietnam written all over it -- in letters stamped crisp and deep, like the data on a dog tag.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969) was ostensibly about one war but wound up being interpreted as a commentary on another. As admirers of Vonnegut, who died last Wednesday at 84, point out, that's a common fate for a war novelist: You write about one hell, you're automatically connected to a fresher one.

"Writers have to sidestep sometimes to get people to look at things," says Bill Savage, senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University. "Any war novel is essentially about every war. What all war stories have in common is the dehumanizing effects they have on the people who fight them."

And so it was that Vonnegut, a playful and whimsical yet urgently serious author, whose death has occasioned a degree of public grief unusual for a literary artist in a picture-obsessed age, wrote a novel about his experiences as an American soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, during its 1945 firebombing by the Allies. "Slaughterhouse-Five" was published in the midst of another war: Vietnam. No matter how specific Vonnegut's references were to World War II, the novel instantly was tagged with a shadow-life. It seemed subversively critical of Vietnam. And it became an enduring -- if disturbing -- favorite with readers.

Similarly, a World War II novel such as "Catch-22" (1961) by Joseph Heller also became a touchstone for Vietnam-era frustrations and anxieties. Richard Hooker's novel "M*A*S*H" (1968), later a TV series, was allegedly about the Korean War but seemed an obvious stand-in for Vietnam. Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" was published 50 years after the Napoleonic Wars it describes.

"American culture is constantly being revised and created. You can talk about one thing only by talking about another," declares Savage. "You can talk about Vietnam, but only if you talk about World War II. You can talk about Iraq, but only if you talk about Vietnam. Because anything that's a sore point -- if you poke at it, people recoil." So by dealing with past wars, authors can get across their views of present ones....


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