Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in his novel, Slaughterhouse V or The Children’s Crusade, that the soldiers in the American army during World War II were not in control of their own actions and were stripped of all free will whilst under the command of German troops. The “unseen hand [which] turned the master valve” is used to exemplify the helplessness of humanity in the chamber that Billy Pilgrim was held. The idea is complemented, also, in the following scene in which Billy travels back in time to a happier memory and yet still a situation where he was powerless. He “zoomed back in time to his infancy” where his mother had complete control of his actions; “[wrapping] him in a towel, [carrying] him into a rosy room” all indicate a lack of free will and a connection between the past and the present which seemingly result in the same fate. Vonnegut uses the same connections between past and present events throughout the novel and uses the Tralfamadorians’ spectrum of time to explain his own perceptions of predeterminism and lack of free will. He claims that “all moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist” and therefore nothing anyone can do will ever change the events of the past or the future. This allows Billy and Vonnegut to accept the atrocities of war and the complications of human responsibilities for life.
The novel also explores the theme of war being a dehumanising process which objectifies the soldiers who fight in them. Vonnegut explains how the men who fought in the US army in World War II were treated not as humans but as numbers by their enemies and machines by their own superiors. In referring to characters such as Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro as simply, “American bodies” Vonnegut is commenting on the treatment and flippant disregard for human life during war. The description of Billy, too, as looking “like a filthy flamingo” due to his lack of proper equipment, weaponry or uniform is a remark from Vonnegut concerning the improper treatment of American soldiers by their own military officials. This horrific reality is contrasted with the British troops in the German prison camp who “made war look stylish, and reasonable, and fun.”
One of the key ideas in Slaughterhouse V is the randomness and subsequent inevitability of death which is explored constantly throughout the novel and often appears beside the phrase, “so it goes.” “So it goes” is a term used to describe the inescapable process of death which links to the Tralfamadorian idea of time being constant and static. Vonnegut explains the unpredictability of death through the fates of Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro. Derby, who possessed “one of the best bodies” and was a friend of Billy Pilgrim was “filled with holes by a firing squad” for looting a teapot from the wreckage in Dresden. His death is contrasted with the life of Lazzaro who survived and killed Billy due to his inherent hatred of the boy-soldier. In this contrast Vonnegut makes the point that death, while unavoidable, is unpredictable and often carries a cruel irony especially during the unstable times of war.
Another theme Vonnegut explains in the novel is Billy’s habit of using time travel as a form of escapism from the real world which he perceives is dreadful and rife with injustice. When he is stripped of his clothes and his power in the prison camp, Billy finds himself in his infancy where he “gurgles and coos” which is an implicit comment from Vonnegut that humans ought to focus on what makes life worth living. When Billy watches the war movie in reverse and sees a city being rebuilt from rubble and “everything and everybody as good as new” Vonnegut explores the idea that the ability exists for destruction and desolation, however, nothing can undo the horrors of war or restore a city in flames.
The theme of escapism as well as the elements of dehumanisation, predeterminism and randomness of death culminate in the central idea that Slaughterhouse V is “an anti-war novel”. The notion that people cannot control their own destinies or their own actions is a way for Vonnegut to suggest that while war is inevitable, just like the death of millions who fight in them, humans should not be capable of such malice in order to invoke war. The dehumanisation of soldiers in World War II symbolise Vonnegut’s view of war as being an ugly and inhumane affair which should never be replicated. And finally, the theme of escapism exemplifies the need for humanity to move past the atrocities which incite conflict and rather focus on values such as innocence and generosity for “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”