INDIANAPOLIS — And so it goes.
That’s how Kurt Vonnegut cryptically dealt with apocalyptic events of his life, like that night on Feb. 13, 1945, when the British Royal Air Force firebombed Dresden, Germany. He had been an American POW captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Dresden was a beautiful medieval city, a rail center and a refugee hub with little military value, when Vonnegut was placed in the city’s subterranean “slaughterhouse five.”
“Vonnegut and about 100 other Americans interned there miraculously survived,” observed Prof. Gregory Sumner of the University of Detroit Mercy and author of the book “Unstuck in Time,” which guides us through the Indianapolis native’s 14 novels and other works. “Then followed days and weeks when the prisoners were deployed in the process of corpse disposal — imagine that task, that surreal landscape.”
Vonnegut becomes a logical Hoosier reference point after the Hamas terror attack on Israel this month, an atrocity that killed more than 1,200 innocents, injured more than 2,800, with more than 200 others taken hostage, including Americans. Hamas terrorists decapitated infants, murdered concertgoers and parents were killed in front of their children. It is being described as the worst atrocity against Jews since the Holocaust.
In response, Israel ordered a million Gaza residents to move south, without food, water, electricity or safe passage to ... anywhere. There are 2 million Palestinians who have nowhere to go. Israel’s retaliation has killed 1,537 people and wounded more than 6,000 in Gaza, according to multiple sources.
Humanity on earth is now bracing for a stunning response and a catastrophic aftermath. Would Israel respond by pulverizing Gaza City, just like it did to Hezbollah in Beirut earlier this century, with residents finding themselves in a 21st Century slaughterhouse?
The U.S. has stationed two aircraft carriers off the coast, and President Joe Biden entered Tel Aviv by air Wednesday morning, finding a fraught and taut Middle East pulsating with rage. A Gaza hospital was bombed Tuesday, killing hundreds. Israel and Hamas blamed each other. It sent Palestinians into the streets in the West Bank and throughout this tormented region, scuttling Biden’s Arab summit in Amman as Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas pulled out.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that U.S. experts believe it was a Hamas missile that hit the hospital.
Biden has been emphatic in his support of Israel. On Wednesday he was meeting the Israeli war cabinet, urging restraint. “The world is looking. Israel has a value set like the United States does, and other democracies, and they are looking to see what we are going to do,” the president said.
Biden said alongside with Netanyahu, “Americans are grieving with you. They really are. And Americans are worried. Americans are worried because we know this is not an easy field to navigate what you have to do. Justice must be done. But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11 we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
In a CBS “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, Biden seemed to be pushing for restraint. “The world’s at an inflection point,” he said. “The world’s changing, but we have an opportunity to make it, so, imagine if we were able to succeed in getting the Middle East put in place where we have normalization of relations. I think we can do that.”
How should Hoosiers process this crisis?
Sumner was asked how he views what’s going on in Gaza through the Vonnegut Dresden prism.
“Vonnegut was against dehumanization of any form. The kind of violence going on now is dehumanizing, fundamentally,” Sumner said. “Vonnegut was not a pacifist. He believed he fought in a just war. He thought Dresden was a meaningless massacre by the British. He would believe that Israel has the right to self-defense and some kind of response, but I think he would be horrified by cutting off electricity, water and food. He would be horrified by the bombing of a dense city that would, rather ineffectively, use a sledgehammer to kill a guerrilla organization. He would urge restraint.”
In the final chapter of Vonnegut’s mesmerizing account in his 1969 book “Slaughterhouse-Five,” we find POW Vonnegut digging through the pulverized residue of Dresden: “The materials were loose, so there were constant little avalanches. They made a hole in the membrane” he described as “timbers laced over rocks which had wedged together to form an accidental dome. There was darkness and space under there. A German soldier with a flashlight went down into the darkness and was gone a long time. When he finally came back, he told a superior on the rim of the hole that there were dozens of bodies down there. They were sitting on benches. They were unmarked. So it goes.”
The membrane hole had been enlarged, bodies were being carried out, the stink “was like roses and mustard gas. Then a new technique was devised. Bodies weren’t brought up any more. They were cremated by soldiers with flamethrowers right where they were.”
So it goes. War is hell.
Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.