The dog, who had sounded so ferocious in the winter distances, was a female German shepherd. She was shivering. Her tail was between her legs. She had been borrowed that morning from a farmer. She had never been to war before. She had no idea what game was being played. Her name was Princess.
The German soldiers who capture Americans Billy Pilgrim and Roland Weary have plucked an innocent dog from domestic life to use in the war effort. The contrast of the frightening sound of her bark with her terrified demeanor and frilly name exemplifies war’s disruption of the natural world. This animal is not a soldier or a weapon but has been used as both and the experience has left her whimpering and confused. Princess shouldn’t be in this situation—no one and nothing should be in this situation.
A siren went off, scared the hell out of him. He was expecting World War Three at any time. The siren was simply announcing high noon.
Here, Billy’s fight-or-flight instinct kicks in when he hears a harmless, everyday sound. Before this event, he was struggling to muster interest in reading a magazine, but now he is on high alert. War molded him into a being of extremes, swinging from apathy to sheer terror in a second. His residual trauma is so infused into his being that he sees and hears danger everywhere, even in the most mundane aspects of life. The destruction of war does not end when the last of the bombs drop, but extends onward for decades in the psyches of those who participated.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
Here, slightly unstuck from time, Billy watches a war film on TV in reverse, and in this reversed film he sees an impossible dream. Airplanes suck bombs back up into their bellies, undoing the destruction below. Weapons travel back to their factories, and workers dismantle them and return the materials to the Earth. War takes pieces from our world, never to return. Billy yearns for some process that would reverse war and make the world whole once more.
The advocates of nuclear disarmament seem to believe that, if they could achieve their aim, war would become tolerable and decent. They would do well to read this book and ponder the fate of Dresden, where 135,000 people died as the result of an air attack with conventional weapons.
As Billy lies in a hospital bed, Bertram Rumfoord, the man in the bed next to him, reads this excerpt from an account of the Dresden bombing. Rumfoord hopes to write an account of the bombing that paints the event as a glorious success, but his sources say otherwise. The excerpt makes clear the foolishness in imagining that a “civilized” version of war could be possible. Regardless of whether the methods are centuries-old or technologically advanced, the result of war will still be the same: hideous, widespread death.
Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
Here, his memory unexpectedly triggered by a musical performance, Billy finally remembers the trauma he experienced at Dresden: He and some other soldiers hid in a meat locker while everyone in the city died an awful, fiery death. Billy could only watch as the innocent city went up in a hellish blaze. The detail that the flame destroyed everything that was organic only emphasizes the violation of war. All that is organic, vulnerable, beautiful, and full of life is also the easiest to destroy.