Kurt Vonnegut and I have a lot in common. Vonnegut fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was cut off behind enemy lines and captured. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was cut off behind enemy lines, but managed to keep an ad-hoc combat formation of 60 stragglers intact and mostly alive until the Allied counterattack pushed the Germans back and “liberated” them. Well, okay, so maybe Vonnegut and my dad have that in common. But I grew up listening to my dad’s stories, and a lot of what Vonnegut says resonates.
But back to Vonnegut and me. He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and so was I. Of course, he was born in 1922 and I was born in 1961, but, at least according to Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, this business of seeing time as linear and important is a function of our human perception, and really isn’t very important at all. The Tralfamadorians were the aliens who captured Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and took him to their home planet. As Pilgrim navigates the horrors of his captivity, and the hunger and freezing cold of the winter of 1944-45, he occasionally departs the confines of our home planet and describes his captivity on Tralfamador, where he is treated far more humanely than he is here on earth.
Now I cannot imagine my dad babbling on about space aliens. He was a pretty “in-the-moment” guy, my dad. But then again, my dad didn’t experience what Vonnegut experienced as a prisoner in Dresden. Dresden was firebombed in February, 1945 and 25,000 people died. That was the most people killed in that kind of bombing until a few months later, when the first atomic bomb killed six times that many people in Hiroshima. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not apologizing for Dresden or Hiroshima or anything. No sirree. You have to do what you have to do to defeat evil in this world. And we are all a lot better off than we would have been if Hitler had won the war. Well, at least most of us are.
And, as far as the space aliens go, well, maybe that’s just what PTSD looked like to a guy who was part of a generation that lived through World War II. For a minute, I was going to say “a generation that fought World War II,” but then I remembered one of my favorite parts of Vonnegut’s book was where he was talking about how NOT everybody really fought in the war. And how the “toughest” people he knew were the ones who spent the war as public relations officers in Baltimore, while “the nicest veterans… the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.” That resonates.
Vonnegut survived the Dresden raids because he and some other prisoners were kept in a meat locker in a slaughterhouse. But then he had to come out to help clean up the bodies and the city. His description of what he saw is worth reading. And then, eventually, he got “liberated,” too.
So maybe the whole time-travel-space-alien thing was PTSD, and maybe not. Maybe, if you were Vonnegut, and you wanted to write something that would remind people how bad things can get and how quickly they can get that way, you would invent some aliens to remind us that there really isn’t much difference between 70 years ago and today. Because, for the Tralfamadorians, it’s all the same. So it goes.