Our words this week come from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” from his posthumous collection, Armageddon in Retrospect.
The excerpt reads:
“The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all cliches, ‘fortunes of war,’ and another, ‘They asked for it. All they understand is force.’ Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.”
A veteran of WWII taken as a POW during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut’s writings on war and the institutional machineries that create it have informed my perspective on pacifism and patriotism since adolescence, specifically in thinking about the human costs for soldiers and civilians. Vonnegut spent the first part of his career writing directly or indirectly about the sickening inhumanity and personal trauma of the American firebombing of Dresden, a mission that killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including women and children. He’d spent the days during the bombing hiding in a slaughterhouse and the days after working alongside Germans to search for survivors while stacking burnt bodies for mass cremation. The American media hardly spared a headline for victims and vets alike, the government sparing even less. I can only imagine Vonnegut’s anger and despair at this, a young man recovering from the suicide of his mother. His humor, calm criticism, and emotional generosity in the face of trauma taught me a ton on how to navigate heaviness and injustice, how to use art and voice to make something half a century ago halfway around the world feel present and vital and human.
Despite the art of people like Vonnegut and idea that we are the most advanced civilization in the history of our planet, the United States has been at war in one capacity or another for well over half of my life. Recently we elected to give an unstable old man access to the largest nuclear arsenal in history, a cyberbully with the foreign relations tact of an aggressive fifth grader in the schoolyard and the empathetic capacity of a rock. The fear of the Cold War is creeping back into the collective psyche through the language of politicians and the media. So, as the flag waving of Veterans’ Day fades until next year’s brief show of nationalist pride and social media posts, I suggest we build a statue of PFC Vonnegut holding a basket of burnt babies in front of the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Pentagon with a plaque simply saying “The Fortunes of War.” Just as a friendly reminder.