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Kurt Vonnegut would have turned 100 today — his war novels are relevant as ever

An art installation commemorates the novel <em>Slaughterhouse-Five</em> in the cellar of the former slaughterhouse where author Kurt Vonnegut, then an American prisoner of war, was held in Dresden, Germany.
Sean Gallup
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Getty Images
An art installation commemorates the novel Slaughterhouse-Five in the cellar of the former slaughterhouse where author Kurt Vonnegut, then an American prisoner of war, was held in Dresden, Germany.

Kurt Vonnegut was disappointed in America. "I'm sorry that America isn't a greater success than it is," he told me in 1991. "Because we're so wealthy and we really could have done almost anything. And we've done so very little in comparison to what we might have done in creating an ideal society."

Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, would have turned 100 today. He was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 11, 1922, Armistice Day. The late author wrote satirical and darkly humorous novels that won him a cult-like following with the youth culture of the 1960s — but his work remains relevant today.

Vonnegut wrote novels about the irrationality of governments and the senseless destruction of war. His work was informed by his experience in World War II when he was a 22-year-old soldier captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1987, he told me he was determined to write about war without romanticizing it. "My own feeling is that Civilization ended in World War I, and we're still trying to recover from that," he said. "Much of the blame is the malarkey that artists have created to glorify war — romantic pictures of battle, and of the dead and men in uniform and all that. And I did not want to have that story told again."

Four years later, shortly after the first Gulf War, Vonnegut was saddened by what he saw in America. "We have become such a pitiless people," he said. "And I think it's TV that's done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears: One was we would be killed, the other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is 'whoopee.' It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill."

How Vonnegut spoke to 'young people who care'

Vonnegut's writing questioned the motives of governments and institutions. And that has always resonated with young people, says Charles J. Shields, author of the 2011 biography, And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.

"When I look at faces of young people holding up signs, protesting a Supreme Court decision, or calling for reform, espousing a cause, I see Vonnegutians," Shields says. "What Vonnegut has to say to a young person now has not changed, but has the same effect as it did on young people who were facing the War in Vietnam. A government at the time that seemed indifferent to what the populace wanted. So as long as there are young people who care, Vonnegut will matter."

Shields believes Vonnegut is particularly relevant at this moment in history. "As I think we've come to understand, what's happening in Ukraine is very much like World War II," he explains. "It's the same abject desire for conquest. It's the same overrunning of boundaries and ignoring people's wants, needs and culture. War is fought at different times, but so often it involves the same issues, and so often has the same demeaning effect on humanity."

He was horrified by the senseless waste of war

Vonnegut's breakthrough to millions of readers came in 1963, with his fourth novel, Cat's Cradle — about a secret military experiment, called "Ice Nine," that leads to the destruction of civilization.

But his most striking anti-war statement came six years later and was quickly adapted by Hollywood. Slaughterhouse-Five depicts the firebombing of Dresden by Allied warplanes in 1945. The city was reduced to rubble. More than 20,000 civilians were killed.

Like the novel's hero, Vonnegut was an American POW, imprisoned in a Dresden Slaughterhouse during the air raid. Afterward, he was forced to remove decaying bodies from flooded basements around the city. Vonnegut said the experience left an indelible impression.

"The destruction of Dresden was my first experience with really fantastic waste," he recalled. "To burn down a habitable city — and a beautiful one at that. And so I was simply impressed by the wastefulness, the terrible wastefulness, the meaninglessness of war."

Vonnegut wrote 14 novels, along with a handful of story collections, plays and non-fiction works. His fiction has been reissued in a four-volume set by the Library of America. In 1991, he said he'd always have an audience because his books say: "Hey, you're not alone."

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Tom Vitale