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Can wars be just?

Can wars be just?

Required reading

Who: Roberta Haar, political scientist at University College Maastricht

Book: Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Target: UCM students

“I have two copies of Slaughterhouse-Five – that shows how much I love it. Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. I can’t remember when I read it for the first time. It’s well known in the US, where I’m from. They study it in literature classes. I also use it in my course War and World Politics here at UCM.”

The book, published in 1969, tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a very young, poorly trained American soldier – a chaplain’s assistant – who doesn’t like war at all. He is sent to Europe during the Second World War and captured by the Germans in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes counteroffensive. He becomes a prisoner of war and is shipped in a long train ride to Dresden. Billy and his fellow prisoners are put in a disused slaughterhouse; a building known as Schlachthof 5. Translation: Slaughterhouse 5. It’s a deep cellar and turns out to be the perfect hiding place when the Allies start bombing Dresden at the end of the war, in February 1945. The bombs and the resulting firestorm destroy the entire city centre, killing 25,000 civilians. Billy, his fellow American prisoners and their German guards are among the few who survive the Allied aerial bombing.

Vonnegut himself was also an American soldier who was captured by the Germans, shipped to Dresden and experienced the horror of the bombing and firestorm. Just like Billy, he survived because he was sheltered in Slaughterhouse-Five. “He could have written a non-fiction book. Instead he chose to write a novel, which is much more powerful and is much more than a historical novel. You can feel the emotion of these young men; it teaches you about the absurdities of war, how casual violence can be. People died for nothing –  life meant nothing. It shows the extreme violence and at the same time the inevitability of it all.”

“In my class we ask ourselves: Why do wars start? We talk about theories, about case studies like World War I, Vietnam, the India–Pakistan. I use a quote from this book to discuss the morality of war—can wars be just or not.  But this book  goes beyond that to examine the personal tragedies of war.” Not in the least because it also addresses post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). Billy goes mad, using time travel – one moment he’s working in his optometry store, the next he’s talking with aliens from the planet Tralfamadore – as his coping strategy. Many soldiers who fought in different wars end up with PTSS. Haar: “For example, after over 11 years of war with some soldiers completing multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, the suicide rate among American soldiers is now the highest it’s ever been.”


In this column lecturers recommend a novel that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do




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