‘So It Goes’ for Kurt Vonnegut Jr, anti-war veteran author, and former POW

One of my all-time favorite authors – a veteran who was a POW and a staunch anti-war advocate – would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who turned me on to science fiction mixed with auto-biographical recalls, was born on Veterans Day in 1921, just three years after Armistice Day, which was the original veterans’ day. It commemorated the end of the European war “Over There” and was called “the war to end all wars.”

Yeah, right. And then came World War II, the Korean War, and the war that yours truly participated in after being drafted by Uncle Sam. The United States through its wisdom and bravado took part in at least three more wars some of which were justified but others just an attempt to secure oil or some other form of treasure.

Vonnegut was critical of what he and many others believed was one of the worst atrocities that the US and its allies took part in to end the war against the Nazis. He served first as a chaplain’s assistant and then as a combat infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge where he was taken prisoner and forced into a concentration camp in Dresden, Germany.


Some of the facility was built beneath the ground and the POWs were housed in a former slaughterhouse called “Schlachthof-funf,” which translated into Slaughterhouse-Five. They were fortunate to have survived – not just the German army, but the allies that fire-bombed Dresden in an effort to end Hitler’s atrocious war.

(Some 500 Jewish prisoners were in the camp. At least 16 people died of malnourishment or illness while the air raid of February 13, 1945, claimed further victims. Some prisoners were shot dead by the SS men and female overseers.)

Thousands of civilians living in the German town lost their lives when the allies fire-bombed Dresden completely destroying the city. The retelling of the history is a small but major part of the book which is named “Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death.”

Vonnegut tells about the bombing through the eyes of his main character, a young soldier named Billy Pilgrim who is freed from the camp and returned home to be initially treated in a hospital for something which will later be called PTSD.


The young man is transported to the planet Tralfamadoria where he is placed in a caged dome in a zoo for the Tralfamadorians to view and study. They abduct an American porn star and place her with Billy to mate when he is automatically transferred back to Earth in a time warp to relive past and future events of his life. Billy travels in the past, the present, and the future becoming “unstuck in time.”

The book deals a lot with death and how we humans can embrace it and not be afraid of something that all of us will someday face. The most famous quote from the book is actually about death and what should be our view of it: “So It Goes!”

15 comments on “‘So It Goes’ for Kurt Vonnegut Jr, anti-war veteran author, and former POW

  1. cabrogal says:

    Just reading The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson, an alternate history sci-fi of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I thought I’d share this bit, which is from the perspective of the bombardier about half way to target as he contemplates his crew mates …

    In peacetime Fitch would be hanging around a pool table giving the cops trouble. He was perfect for war. Tibbets had chosen his men well—most of them, anyway. Moving back past Haddock, January stopped to stare at the group of men in the navigation cabin. They joked, drank coffee. They were all a bit like Fitch: young toughs, capable and thoughtless. They were having a good time, an adventure. That was January’s dominant impression of his companions in the 509th; despite all the bitching and the occasional moments of overmastering fear, they were having a good time. His mind spun forward and he saw what these young men would grow up to be like as clearly as if they stood before him in businessmen’s suits, prosperous and balding. They would be tough and capable and thoughtless, and as the years passed and the great war receded in time they would look back on it with ever-increasing nostalgia, for they would be the survivors and not the dead. Every year of this war would feel like ten in their memories, so that the war would always remain the central experience of their lives—a time when history lay palpable in their hands, when each of their daily acts affected it, when moral issues were simple, and others told them what to do—so that as more years passed and the survivors aged, bodies falling apart, lives in one rut or another, they would unconsciously push harder and harder to thrust the world into war again, thinking somewhere inside themselves that if they could only return to world war then they would magically be again as they were in the last one—young, and free, and happy. And by that time they would hold the positions of power, they would be capable of doing it.
    So there would be more wars, January saw. He heard it in Matthews’ laughter, saw it in their excited eyes. “There’s Iwo, and it’s five thirty-one. Pay up! I win!” And in future wars they’d have more bombs like the gimmick, hundreds of them no doubt. He saw more planes, more young crews like this one, flying to Moscow no doubt or to wherever, fireballs in every capital, why not? And to what end? To what end? So that the old men could hope to become magically young again. Nothing more sane than that.


    • contoveros says:

      Wow. Disturbing, to say the least, but I guess there may be some who believe what Fitch had foreseen for the future of some men.
      The following quote struck me with its truism: “the war would always remain the central experience of their lives . . .”


  2. I really like this post. I learned something I didn’t know, and loved how you turned negatives to inspirations without discarding the impact of the negatives.
    Happy holidays Michael!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I still recall a lot of what our mention here fro Slaughter House Five (Are they mating yet?). (Dresden was truly an atrocity, perhaps more so than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      More than 150,000 people died in the binning according to Vonnegut. It was far more than what resulted from the Japanese atomic bomb blasts.
      Few people even know about it. I only learned of it through the book Slaughterhouse Five.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Churchill’s legacy 😕

        Liked by 1 person

      • cabrogal says:

        When Vonnegut wrote the book there was debate among historians as to the casualty figures and he took the upper estimate. These days the consensus is that around 25,000 died in the firebombing.

        The barbarity of the war crime wasn’t so much in the body count (as Joe Stalin probably didn’t say “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic”) but in the rationale and execution of the bombing.

        The city was of huge historical and cultural significance but of little military value. It’s population was also swollen by about 200,000 civilian refugees of the Soviet advances in the East. Some justified it as a target as it was a rail junction, but there were plenty of more significant ones that went untouched and by then the Germans had built a lot of redundant junctions in the countryside so that strategic bombing would have little effect on the network.

        Documents showed that both Colin Harris and Churchill considered the destruction of Dresden to be revenge for the destruction of Coventry during the Blitz. In other words it was collective punishment carried out largely against civilians who had nothing to do with Luftwaffe targeting decisions. It was also part of a broader Allied campaign of attacks on civilian targets that was meant to demoralise the Germans and turn them against their leadership. So it was a deliberate and calculated act of terrorism.

        The raid started with low level tactical bombers that destroyed the bridges and blocked the roads so emergency services couldn’t get around. The first wave of heavy bombers dropped high explosives to create kindling. Subsequent waves used incendiaries to light it. The firestorm was by design and was partly a rehearsal and proof of concept for similar attacks against Japanese population centres, particularly Tokyo. An earlier raid on Hamburg that used similar tactics had killed 35,000 – 40,000 civilians and the RAF wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

        The central Dresden firestorm was so intense the updraft dragged firefighters into the blaze.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. cabrogal says:

    Vonnegut would probably tell you “So It Goes!”

    Yeah, he definitely understood anicca.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      I had to Google “anicca” and now I simply want to tell you that it is all Greek to me. I got the following sentence from Wikipedia:

      Impermanence first appears in Greek philosophy in the writings of Heraclitus and his doctrine of “panta rhei” (everything flows). Heraclitus was famous for his insistence on ever-present change as being the fundamental essence of the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice”

      Liked by 2 people

      • cabrogal says:

        Anicca is a Pali word. What little I understand of it comes from the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism (which I studied in Thailand and Sri Lanka).

        Basically it’s the tenet that all things are inherently impermanent and much of our suffering arises from not understanding and accepting that. We try to cling to things we think will make us happy, though their inevitable passing will make us sad, and we imagine the things that cause us pain will continue to do so unless we fight against them, which in turn causes more pain.

        Vonnegut’s “so it goes” in the face of something ceasing to be that may otherwise lead to irresolvable grief or denial suggests an enlightened acceptance of the impermanence of all things.

        Billy Pilgrim (i.e. Vonnegut) and the Tralfamadorians don’t experience time as a linear progression, so in a sense they simultaneously realise the permanence of Time as a whole and the impermanence of its elements and all things which play out upon it. Of course Pilgrim being ‘unstuck in time’ is also a metaphor for trauma-induced flashbacks, with “so it goes” being a mantra of acceptance of those experiences.

        Of course you don’t need to be a Buddhist to embrace anicca (I’m not one), but it’s probably the religion/philosophy that most emphasises its importance. In fact it’s considered one of the three marks of existence that must be fully realised – not just grasped intellectually – to attain enlightenment.

        BTW, I currently live about 500 metres from where I boarded with an elderly Lithuanian couple in 1979 while at university. They were refugees in Dresden when it was firebombed.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Connie Kohler says:

          Thank you for bringing Annica and so it goes into the same category. After listening to a talk by Joseph Goldstein of the Insight Meditation Center, I found myself reflecting on the sadness of Annica and was reminded of Vonnegut’s phrase. So I set out on Google to find if there is a connection and found this response.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. cabrogal says:

    Yeah, Vonnegut was one of my favorites. As a teenager I sent him fan mail and got a brief reply. Unfortunately it was among my treasured possessions that went missing when my family moved to Kempsey while I was in Melbourne working and couldn’t pack away my stuff. (All the crap I didn’t care about, such as sports and academic trophies, ended up in a display case in the new living room though.)

    There were a lot of things that distinguished Vonnegut from the other sci-fi writers of his day, but probably the most notable was he actually served in combat and, like Joseph Heller, became ardently anti-war with a keen eye for the tragic absurdity of military life. Contemporaries like L Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein, OTOH, never saw action (despite Hubbard’s BS to the contrary) and spent their writing careers glorifying militarism and hierarchical command while pretending to be anti-authoritarian.

    All of Vonnegut’s stuff is worth reading, but for me the strongest impact came from the first one I read, Sirens of Titan, which is anti-war, anti-government, anti-religion, darkly humorous, utterly absurd and deeply compassionate.

    But there’s one of his stories that seemed completely ridiculous when I read it that now seems uncannily prophetic. Gotta wonder if Jeff Bezos read it before he built Blue Origin. Maybe space flight while the earth dies is all just a colossally expensive, puerile, macabre joke.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Yeah, you understand what it’s like to have served in combat and then write about something you never want another living person to go through.
      Hemingway was also anti-war having been wounded while serving as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy and wounded by Austrian mortar fire in the First World War.
      He detested war and wrote that it was “nothing more than the dark, murderous extension of a world that refuses to acknowledge, protect, or preserve true love,” in his book, A Farewell to Arms.
      I will check out the Sirens of Titan, based on your recommendation. My heart goes out to you for the loss of the letter you actually got from the great author. However, Vonnegut would probably tell you “So It Goes!”

      Liked by 2 people

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