Circling Dresden: Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon In Retrospect

Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon In Retrospect Kurt Vonnegut’s career–at least the most visible part of it–has been  bookended by Dresden. After being captured during the Battle of the Bulge, the author spent time in a POW camp in that city, watching it transformed literally overnight from a lively and lovely European city to a smoldering wasteland, incinerated by American bombs. He would return to Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five, the novel that made him a household name, and its streets and ghosts would return periodically to haunt his writing.

War and peace similarly stalk the pages of Armageddon in Retrospect. At its most effective–as in the photostat of a letter that Vonnegut wrote to his family at war’s end–it’s a snapshot of the fury and futility of war.

I don’t know offhand if Vonnegut was a fan of the late war journalist Ernie Pyle, but he shares Pyle’s eye for detail. He has no patience for the traditional tropes of war storytelling, skipping the empty heroism in favor of war as it’s experienced by those on the ground: long periods of boredom punctuated by mordant humor at one end of the spectrum, or sheer terror at the other. “Guns Before Butter,” for instance, works precisely because of Vonnegut’s attention to detail; like some of the GI’s that Pyle interviewed, the trio of POW’s in this story while away their days trading recipes and stories of the food on which they’ll gorge themselves when the war ends. And it’s the details that save the story, even with its predictable ending, as they do with a handful of others in this collection.

The book has its moments—the Irwin Shaw-inflected “The Commandant’s Desk” comes to mind—but some stories don’t come off nearly as well. Some of the writing here has relatively little heft. It’s alternately too much—trying too hard to be funny, or make a point—or not enough, taking an underdeveloped theme or a handful of bromides and trying to build a story around the bare bones.

The collection’s rougher bits are redeemed by “Wailing Shall Be In All Streets,” which is the book’s centerpiece, its center of gravity if you will. It’s a short piece, returning–as Vonnegut so often did–to Dresden. If some of the writing brings to mind (at least for this reader) Pyle, Bill Mauldin, or Vonnegut’s friend and contemporary Joseph Heller, this piece is more reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts—during the Blitz, for instance, or the legendary broadcast from Belsen—during World War II. While Vonnegut’s dry humor crops up in places, there’s not a trace of melodrama, heroics, or any of the other crap that characterizes so much of war writing. Its power lies in its restraint.

Stripped to its barest essentials, the story is freed to simply bear witness. The words only suggest the sadness, anger and tension, only hint at the horror taking place just outside the frame of the narrative. And it’s fitting that it should be read here, and now; not only for the historical parallels, but also for its place in the writer’s life and career. Written before Slaughterhouse Five, “Wailing” brings Vonnegut’s writing life full circle, as both beginning and end of a long and highly varied career.

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