Vonnegut’s basis for no war is its absurdity and moral relativism. Wouk’s basis is its cruelty and moral relativism.

Wouk, Vonnegut, and the Moral Relativism of War

I recently completed Herman Wouk’s two novel masterpiece, Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, a historical fiction about World War II.

In the volumes, Wouk catalogs the causes and effects of the war and the holocaust with careful attention to historical accuracy. Far from a recitation of dry history, he weaves a captivating story told  from the point of view of a fictitious family whose personal trials are woven through the war years.

He takes the reader on journeys to Washington, D.C., Berlin, Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Tehran, Pearl Harbor, Midway, the Leyte Gulf, and to many more locations familiar to world war II buffs.

The reader accompanies characters on nighttime bombing raids, evasion of depth charges in a submarine, diplomatic conferences with Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, the siege of Warsaw, as well as the disinterment and burning of desiccated Jewish bodies, while searching those bodies for hidden loot and gold fillings to fill Nazi coffers.

The purpose of the books, as stated by Wouk, is to induce the reader to recognize the existential folly of war.

Wouk’s genius transported me to a Jewish ghetto I’d never heard of, used throughout the war for German propaganda, in which the inhabitants, learning of their imminent transfer to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, on the eve of their departure, in defiance of their SS captors, find courage in passages from the Torah, sing psalms of praise in Yiddish, and finally dance a “dance of death”.  At this scene and many others, I cried in remembrance, and at least for me, he succeeded in his aim. I am convinced that war has to end or we will end.

I have also just finished reading, or rather, re-reading, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which is also an anti-war book. It is ostensibly about the allied fire bombing of the German city of Dresden at the very end of World War II which killed over 130,000 civilians, more than the number killed by the atomic bombs dropped on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Though he also aims to convince his readers that war is no longer viable as an option for modern nations, Vonnegut has taken quite a different tack than Wouk.

Whereas Wouk chronicles in great detail and with great skill the macabre scenes of air, land, and naval battle, prisoner-of-war camps, and Gestapo run Jewish ghettos, he  does so while interlacing episodes of individual heroism and moral courage.

Vonnegut instead crystallizes the individual soldier’s existence as pure, unadulterated insanity and de-humanization. Vonnegut’s soldier is a clownish scarecrow caught up in a world he did not create, which he cannot understand, and in which he cannot escape being played as a pawn by powers he cannot resist. For Vonnegut, once the gauntlet of war is thrown down, the appellation ”hero” is forfeit. All the players are fools.

Vonnegut’s basis for no war is its absurdity and moral relativism. Wouk’s basis is its cruelty and moral relativism.

I have laughed so hard reading Slaughterhouse Five that I’ve nearly injured myself, and that has been one of the most healing things I’ve done in a long time.

Wouk provided me a catharsis of tears, Vonnegut a catharsis of laughter. Either way, while I have nothing but profound respect and appreciation for our soldiers past and present, I’m purposed to glorify war no longer, nor to be its proponent as a solution for any problems extant, even militant Islamic extremism.

As both Wouk and Vonnegut would no doubt point out, in the final analysis as measured by the toll on human life that we as Americans purport to value so much, is a victim of the bombing of a doctors without borders hospital less dead than a victim of a suicide bomber?

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