When Nov. 11 rolls around, this quote from Breakfast of Champions gets dragged out of storage and put on display for the occasion of Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday and Armistice/Veterans Day. But that’s what remembrance and ceremony are for, after all, as mile markers on our half-blind flatcar ride through time. So it goes. And since it remains an awesome quote, and since Vonnegut never feared flirting with cliché (who are we kidding? He eagerly consummated the relationship), neither will we. Let us indulge — for our sixth consecutive year, if you can believe it! — in another nice rummage through the mental attic with Uncle Kurt:
So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.
— Breakfast of Champions (1973)
It’s just such a wonderfully Vonnegut-y quote, for all the terrific reasons there are to love Kurt Vonnegut: the short, clipped sentences; the backwards time travel; the affectation of spelling out the year; the “men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind” — Jesus, what a lovely line! The definitive declarations that sound like pure Truth, but on reflection are, OK, kind of simplistic. The self-aware nostalgia and sentimentality, even as he cautions against nostalgia and sentimentality. And Romeo and Juliet, for chrissakes? Not King Lear, at least?
In some ways, loving Vonnegut almost feels like an adolescent thing to do, and sometimes it’s tempting — especially if you get into a graduate literature program — to think of Vonnegut as a writer you should have grown out of by now. It’s a problem of which Vonnegut himself was quite aware, of course, as he acknowledged in his interview with Playboy, also from 1973:
I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what is God like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they’re settled.
By the time you’re in grad school, you know better than to talk about Vonnegut as if he were quite as deep as you were sure he was at 17. Grownup Serious Literature Students are allowed to quote Vonnegut as much as they want, as long as they treat him as an affectionate artifact they’ve outgrown, like model airplanes hanging from the ceiling or stuffed animals on a dorm bed. And then after you’re comfortably past the one-upmanship of a graduate seminar, you can go back to just plain enjoying Kurt Vonnegut all over again, even if you no longer zoom a plastic B-25 Mitchell bomber around your room (though maybe that’s more of a Joseph Heller thing, anyway).
The other great Vonnegut quote about Armistice Day turning into Veterans Day comes from Mother Night (1961), and doesn’t get quoted nearly as often, but we like it for its explicit grumping about the motivation for the holiday’s metamorphosis:
“Oh, it’s just so damn cheap, so damn typical.” I said, “This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn’t keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it’s torn to shreds and thrown to the mob.”
We’ll agree the quote from Breakfast of Champions, as Vonnegut worked it out over a decade later, is a grander, more quotable passage, but there’s something awfully nice about the raw bitchiness of the earlier version. It’s sort of surprising to us that we haven’t seen any online pairings of the two, either. After all, yet another of the fun things about reading Vonnegut is seeing him turn over ideas again and again in his novels, taking them through their permutations like a Tralfamadorian looking through time.
There are some things it might be a mistake to grow out of.
And so we’ll go on quoting Kurt Vonnegut as much as we damn well please, thank you. So happy Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday, and a peaceful Armistice/Veterans Day to all of you.couple of collections of Vonnegut quotes. We added a quote for Armistice Day 2013 that wasn’t in the inaugural version of this column:
For 2014, with a beautiful new war in Syria starting and too many people who should have known better urging that we get “boots on the ground” — let’s only talk about the boots, not the young men and women wearing them (children, really! Their cerebral cortexes aren’t even grown up yet!) — our new, cautionary Vonnegut quote came from a 1991 interview, shortly after the first Gulf War:
“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”
in 2015, mere weeks after our president (Nobel Peace Prize 2009) apologized to Doctors Without Borders (Nobel Peace Prize 1999) for American planes strafing and bombing a hospital in Afghanistan, killing at least 30 patients, doctors, and nurses, we managed to dig up another Kurt Vonnegut quote about war, this time about the terrible ethical legacy of World War II:
“We have become such a pitiless people,” Vonnegut lamented. “And I think it’s TV that’s done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears. One was we would be killed. The other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is Whoopee. It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill.”
bringing back waterboarding — and worse!! — and hinted he’d be willing to go to war with any punk bitch country whose sailors give the finger to our beautiful destroyers. Kurt Vonnegut essay from 1971, “Torture and Blubber,” in which Vonnegut — who as a survivor of Dresden knew far more about what happens when you bomb the shit out of them than Donald Trump will ever understand — explained, 45 years before the advent of “President” Trump, the flaw in the man’s thinking.
One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war. It’s been possible for politicians and movie-makers to encourage us we’re always good guys. The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of.
Agony never made a society quit fighting, as far as I know. A society has to be captured or killed–or offered things it values. While Germany was being tortured during the Second World War, with justice, may I add, its industrial output and the determination of its people increased. Hitler, according to Albert Speer, couldn’t even be bothered with marveling at the ruins or comforting the survivors. The Biafrans were tortured simultaneously by Nigerians, Russians and British. Their children starved to death. The adults were skeletons. But they fought on.
The problem with Donald Trump’s understanding of war — of the world in general — is that his moral sense is roughly that of a twelve-year-old, and a bully at that:
One wonders now where our leaders got the idea that mass torture would work to our advantage in Indochina. It never worked anywhere else. They got the idea from childish fiction, I think, and from a childish awe of torture.
Children talk about tortures a lot. They often make up what they hope are new ones. I can remember a friend’s saying to me when I was a child: “You want to hear a really neat torture?” The other day I heard a child say to another: “You want to hear a really cool torture?” And then an impossibly complicated engine of pain was described. A cross would be cheaper, and work better, too.
But children believe that pain is an effective way of controlling people, which it isn’t — except in a localized, short-term sense. They believe that pain can change minds, which it can’t. Now the secret Pentagon history reveals that plenty of high-powered American adults think so, too, some of them college professors. Shame on them for their ignorance.
If Kurt Vonnegut were with us today — and through his writing, he is — he would be among millions of us saying to Donald Trump, “Shame on you for your ignorance.” For all he’d listen to us, even if we all painted ourselves blue and went on all fours all day long and grunted like pigs.
Now that we’ve had a year to see him being presidential, Donald Trump still scares the shit out of us, which in a way is good, because we still know this is not normal. Instead of saying he’s smarter than the generals, Trump seems happy to turn the conduct of our wars over to them so he won’t have to do anything more than take credit for victories and yell at widows for losses. He also seems, at times, like he’d like to turn the rest of the government over to generals so he could just go play golf and Tweet. And threaten to rain nuclear death on North Korea.
For Armistice Day 2017, I’d like to ask your indulgence to listen to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1982 sermon at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, “Fates Worse Than Death,” which was later included in a book of the same title, but you can also read the full text here. This is a sermon imagining how humans could possibly go on living without hydrogen bombs, a pretty hot topic in 1982, and today. If you don’t have the half hour to listen to it, I’ve fished out a nice quote below the embed.
Vonnegut says that, apart from crucifixion, he really couldn’t think of anything that would be so much worse than death that humanity would really give up on life. He also notes that no country can hire enough carpenters to crucify everyone in another country, so if we get rid of The Bomb, we might be in good shape. He also has this observation about technology and the possiblity — not the guarantee, sadly — of human empathy:
Even in my own lifetime, it used to be necessary for a young soldier to get into fighting before he became disillusioned about war. His parents back home were equally ignorant, and believed him to be slaying monsters. But now, thanks to modern communications, the people of every industrialized nation are nauseated by war by the time they are ten years old. […]
So we now know for certain that there are no potential human enemies anywhere who are anything but human beings almost exactly like ourselves. They need food. How amazing. They love their children. How amazing. They obey their leaders. How amazing. They think like their neighbors. How amazing.
Thanks to modern communications, we now have something we never had before: reason to mourn deeply the death or wounding of any human being on any side in any war […]
We have often heard it said that people would have to change, or we would go on having world wars. I bring you good news this morning: people have changed.
We aren’t so ignorant and bloodthirsty any more.
Which isn’t to say we’re no longer ignorant and bloodthirsty — just less so. The wonder of Kurt Vonnegut is that he was such a keen observer of our capacity for barbarism and a believer that we could stop being barbarians, because that’s necessary for survival.
We can probably keep adding a new, timely Vonnegut quote about war to this column every year until we run out of quotes, or we run out of wars. We fear we can keep this up this tradition forever, since we’ll be in Afghanistan at least that long. Don’t worry; if by some fluke a Nov. 11 should come about when Americans aren’t in combat somewhere, we can handle it. Vonnegut wrote about a lot of other things, too.
We also discovered an invaluable book last spring, though it’s a couple years old now: Ginger Strand’s The Brothers Vonnegut, a biography of Kurt Vonnegut and his older brother Bernard, the GE scientist Kurt probably loved more than any other human being. Bernard’s ambivalence about his own research into cloud seeding led both to Kurt’s novel Cat’s Cradle and to a UN treaty banning weather modification as a weapon of war. Strand reminds us that four days after Bernard died, Kurt finished his fourteenth and final novel, Timequake:
“I was the baby of the family,” he explained at the end. “Now I don’t have anyone to show off for anymore.”
And that, too, is why I love Kurt Vonnegut.
Since Vonnegut liked music enough to consider it the only really plausible evidence that God might exist, here’s a song for Armistice-Remembrance-Veterans Day, Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” to remember the over 9,750,000 who died during the Great War. There are no living veterans of that war; the last, Florence Green, died in 2012 just two weeks short of her 111th birthday.
Let’s try to at least imagine a world where we won’t need veterans’ parades.
What, one more video? OK, if you insist.