Vonnegut Speaks to a New War Generation

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

I assigned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five to my introductory history course this term for the first time. Reading some of my students' response papers revealed to me that the Iraq occupation has touched dozens of lives at this urban commuter campus with it diverse, largely working-class student body. (Maybe that's why David Horowitz doesn't give a damn what we teach here; the daughters and sons of landscapers, truck drivers, nurses, and secretaries just don't matter to his crusade against the "P.C. police"). Some of the responses to Vonnegut were surprising. Many of my students quickly recognized the novel's anti-war stance and related their own stories about Iraq.

I have one student who has had four family members serve in Iraq or Afghanistan and is extremely grateful they are alive and not currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or maimed for life. Another student, a young woman who is studying to become a nurse, wrote that her sister-in-law works with veterans, many of who suffer from PTSD. Her worst case is an older gentleman who served in Vietnam. One student wrote of her Vietnam veteran uncle who carries the scars of the war deep inside and refuses even to mention his experience. Another student points out that many of her friends enlisted in the Army right out of high school before they were even old enough to drink a beer and were sent off to fight in the Middle East. All of my students seem to have benefited greatly from Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel, many of them repeated, "So it goes," and grappled with the meaning of Vonnegut's words as they directly relate to the current war as well as the war of their grandparents' generation.

It's now going on five years since George W. Bush, aided by his enablers in Congress and the media, invaded Iraq, overthrew its government, occupied its territory, and privatized its economy. Most of my students were only 13 or 14 years old when "Mission Accomplished" flashed across their television screens. After reading their responses to the Vonnegut assignment, I realized that I am teaching to a new war generation. Unlike my own youth when America had deep problems but the Vietnam War had soured the country for a time on long-term military adventures, the current crop of students are dealing with growing up in "wartime" (as Bush likes to say) with all of its nightmares and challenges save for that of the military draft. (Though there is still a poverty draft.)

And then after reading my students' papers it struck me that the true genius of the Bush regime and its neo-con allies is that they have created a self-perpetuating privatized killing machine. There are always those who will profit from war and do their best to lobby for war. But Bush has taken this hallmark tendency in a capitalist society a step further by creating a veritable patronage system that requires sustaining these wars and occupations indefinitely. The Erik Princes of this world will now be a constant political force pressing the nation to maintain a substantial garrison in Iraq, Afghanistan, and everywhere else where a buck can be made.

Whoever sits in the White House after January 20, 2009, or which party controls the Congress, will matter little without bold action against the new permanent war economy. Without radical change this new militarized patronage system will continue to chug along. There are simply too many people and corporations making too much money to give it up. Halliburton's in Dubai now, and with Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and Dyncorp providing the muscle, Bush and Cheney have accomplished the dream of Ronald Reagan's CIA Director William Casey: To build an "off the shelf, stand alone, independent" entity to run American foreign policy free from the constraints of the Congress and the American people.

The next President is not going to know what the hell is going on over there with all of those "cut outs" and front businesses and shell companies and money launderers and arms merchants and private security firms fused with the privatized U.S. intelligence services and military. Lots of luck trying to reel in these privateers and freebooters President Obama.

Too bad we cannot do what Vonnegut's fictional character Billy Pilgrim does and play this war movie backwards and see the destruction undone and the weapons disassembled or never wastefully made in the first place. Nor can we press rewind and undo the damage to our republic the past seven years has wrought.

Unless Congress acts boldly beginning now and the new President in 2009 takes chances and fights back against these most "special" of all "special interests," we will be forced to endure Act II of Bush's tragic play well into the next administration. We will have Bushism without Bush. Maybe the nation won't be all that different 403 days, 7 hours, and 30 minutes from now.

The key question is: Should Congress continue to compromise with these people?

Kurt Vonnegut didn't think so.

In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut summed up the Bush regime this way (pp. 99-101):

George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences. . . .

And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? . . .

They might have felt that taking our country into endless war was simply something decisive to do. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a fuck what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes for the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!