It is so short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.

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Vonnegut writes in his own voice, introducing his experience of the firebombing of Dresden, in eastern Germany, during World War II while he was a prisoner of war and his attempt for many years to complete a book on the subject. He begins with the claim that most of what follows is true, particularly the parts about war.

With funding from the Guggenheim Foundation, Vonnegut and his wartime friend Bernhard V. O’Hare return to Dresden in 1967. In a taxi on the way to the Dresden slaughterhouse that served as their prison, Vonnegut and O’Hare strike up a conversation with the cab driver about life under communism. It is to this man, Gerhard Müller, as well as to O’Hare’s wife, Mary, that Vonnegut dedicates Slaughterhouse-Five. Müller later sends O’Hare a Christmas card with wishes for world peace.

Vonnegut relates his unsuccessful attempts to write about Dresden in the twenty-three years since he was there during the war. He is very proud of the outline of the story that he draws in crayon on the back of a roll of wallpaper. The wallpaper outline represents each character in a different color of crayon, with a line for each progressing through the story’s chronology. Eventually the lines enter a zone of orange cross-hatching, which represents the firebombing, and those who survive the attack emerge and finally stop at the point when the POWs are returned. However, the outline does not help Vonnegut’s writing. He initially expected to craft a masterpiece about this grave and immense subject, but, while the horrific destruction he witnessed occupies his mind over the years, it defies his attempts to capture it in writing. Vonnegut’s antiwar stance only adds to the difficulty, since, as a filmmaker acquaintance remarks to him, writing a book against war would prevent war as effectively as writing a book against glaciers would prevent their motion.

Vonnegut recounts the events of his postwar life, including a stints as a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago, a police reporter, and a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. In the years following the war, Vonnegut encounters ignorance about the magnitude of Dresden’s destruction, and when he contacts the U.S. Air Force for information, he discovers that the event is still classified as top secret.

Around 1964, Vonnegut takes his young daughter and her friend with him to visit Bernhard V. O’Hare in Pennsylvania. He meets Mary O’Hare, who is disgusted by the likelihood that Vonnegut will portray himself and his fellow soldiers as manly heroes rather than the “babies” they were. With his right hand raised, Vonnegut vows not to glorify war and promises to call his book The Children’s Crusade. Later that night he reads about the Children’s Crusade and the earlier bombing of Dresden in 1760.

While teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Vonnegut lands a contract to write three books, of which Slaughterhouse-Five is to be the first. It is so short and jumbled, he explains, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.