Military Technology: Progressive or Regressive?
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Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five treats one of the most horrific massacres of World War II—the firebombing of Dresden. Dresden was completely wiped out by more than 3900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices dropped by the thousands of heavy bombers. By detailing the devastating effect of the air bombing in Dresden and alluding to the evil of technology through the Trafalmadorians’ stories, Vonnegut criticizes the application of technology in war. He indicates that technology represents a regression of civilization, because the use of technology in war allows people to bomb one another “back to the stone age”. While technology is the result of intelligence and reason, Vonnegut points out that the employment of technology in war only leads to mass destruction. In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut says that “every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam” (Vonnegut 268). He implies that the great achievement of science and technology used in war is the large number of people it kills.
By pointing out that the government measures the success of technology with the loss of lives, Vonnegut reveals the destructive nature of technology and the consequence of its use in war. Vonnegut also demonstrates the devastating effect of technology through Billy’s experience during the firebombing of Dresden. Billy, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, is a war prisoner sent to Dresden to work as a contract laborer. He survives and witnesses the horrifying massacre when the US long-range bombers bomb Dresden. The depiction of the city of Dresden is distinct before and after the bombardment. When Billy first comes to Dresden, the city is described as “the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen” (Vonnegut 189). Vonnegut offers a snapshot of the vigorous everyday life and the industrial civilization of Dresden by narrating that “Steam radiators still whistled cheerily in Dresden, Streetcars clanged. Telephones rang and were answer. Lights went on and off when switches were clicked. There were theaters and restaurants. There was a zoo. The principal enterprises of the city were medicine and food-processing and the making of cigarettes” (Vonnegut 189-190). The whistling steam radiators, sparkling lights and ringing telephone provoke an image of a modern and bustling city.
The bustling aspect of a city together with its well-equipped facilities ranging from theaters to zoos is a sign of the city’s prosperity. The city’s principal enterprises of medicine, food-processing and the making of cigarettes also indicate that Dresden is an affluent and blooming city. The heavenly and prosperous city of Dresden however comes to resemble “the moon” as the city is flattened and reduced to shambles by the bombing. The burned-out surface is covered with holes, “ashes and dollops of melt glass” (Vonnegut 229) closely resembling the “moonscape”. Vonnegut highlights the contrast in the appearance of Dresden before and after the firebombing to show the collapse of civilization and at the same time underscore the destructive power of technology. The formidable consequences of military technology are further elaborated in Vonnegut’s depiction of the casualties in the bombing of Dresden. In Billy’s memory of the firebombing, Dresden is in a “fire-storm” that eats “everything organic” and “everything that would burn” (Vonnegut 227). The scenes of destruction on the ground are unimaginable because the firestorm consumes all available oxygen in a matter of hours and the citizens of Dresden are incinerated or suffocated and then covered by the debris created by the bombing.
Vonnegut provides a vivid portrayal of the corpses by associating them with the wax statues in wax museums. Billy is given the task of finding and burying the bodies after he survives the bombing. As he digs into a hole and reports what he sees to his superior, Billy says that dozens of bodies are “sitting on the benches” and they are “unmarked” which, Billy thinks, look like wax statues in wax museums (Vonnegut 273). The horrific irony about the metaphor is that the dead corpses appear so perfectly intact that they look like they are still alive while they are in fact dead. The dreadful yet powerful effect of the use of technology here is that it separates and strips the fact of living from the apparent state of living. Vonnegut use such metaphors to highlight the incendiary bombs’ power and efficiency in slaughtering, signifying the dreadful annihilating consequence of the employment of advanced technology in war. In addition to criticizing the destructive effect of technology, Vonnegut points out that the destruction itself is senseless and unintelligible, regardless of the sophisticated technology used in building the slaughtering weapons.
Because technology, as a product of human intelligence, brings the ironic result of senseless slaughter, Vonnegut suggests that the use of intelligence in the development of technology actually leads to the destruction of intelligence. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut clearly expresses his thought about the war in terms of intelligence and meaning: “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything again” (Vonnegut 24). Although technological progress is fostered and enhanced by intelligent human beings, there is nothing intelligent or even humane about what technology yields. To kill with innovative and sophisticated weapons is as unintelligent and silly as beating people to death with sticks and stones, except that with technology the damage can be achieved to a much greater extent. Therefore, intelligence destroys itself in the sense that technology eventually leads to the loss of intelligence in the violent and senseless massacre of war. Civilization, distinguished by human intelligence, accordingly regresses to an inferior state. After demonstrating the destructive potential of technology and its contribution to the regression of civilization, Vonnegut describes the ultimate outcome of technological advancement through the example of the Trafalmadorians’ self-destruction.
The Trafalmadorians are portrayed as superior to humans in intelligence. They can see all times simultaneously like we see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. However, intelligent and highly developed as the Trafalmadorians are, they wipe out the universe while experimenting with new fuels for their flying saucers (Vonnegut 149). Again, advancement in technology results in destruction as the Trafalmadorians test their accomplishments at the cost of the universe and their own lives. What the Trafalmadorians do, however, bears a great resemblance to human’s use of technology in pointless slaughter in war. It is similarly ironic that the creation of technology results in exterminating of intelligence and civilizations. The Trafalmadorians are more advanced in technological development and thus have larger power in bringing more massive and more pointless destruction than human beings.
Yet Vonnegut suggests that the larger the technological advancement, the greater the destructive impact it exerts on human intelligence and civilization. Therefore, the implication is that when mankind evolves to attain the same level of power in technology as the Trafalmadorians, we will end up in a similar ultimate destruction. However, Vonnegut’s statement is not that technology alone brings destructions to human civilization but the union of human cruelty and technology. From Crusades to the Vietnam War, Vonnegut charts a pattern of violence in Western civilization in the novel. He also demonstrates the human aptitude for violence through his characters such as the British war prisoners, Roland Weary, Bertram Rumfoord and so on. Vonnegut believes that it is the access to technology that allows the brutal nature of human to achieve greater destructions ever as he repeatedly compares the levels of destruction caused by different innovative military technology in different wars. In other words, the technological advancement amplifies the result of human violence and therefore leads to a regression of both civilization and humanity.