Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace was published exactly one year after Kurt Junior Vonnegut’s death on April 11, 2007. It’s a diverse collection: a moving 10 page introduction by his son Mark, a horrifically blunt 3 page letter from Kurt to his family, dated May 29, 1945 – written in Germany right after the war, a speech he was supposed to deliver on April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, and – the bulk of the book – 11 short stories, undated, ranging from 4 pages to 26 pages each. Armageddon In Retrospect is also illustrated by Vonnegut’s characteristic drawings, often including text.
The stories’ titles are as follows: Wailing Shall Be In All Streets, Great Day, Guns Before Butter, Happy Birthday, 1951, Brighten Up, The Unicorn Trap, Unknown Soldier, Spoils, Just You And Me, Sammy, The Commandant’s Desk and Armageddon In Retrospect. Two of those are explicitly speculative in nature: Great Day is set in 2037 and features a time machine, and the title story is a kind of satirical alternative history featuring demonology. The other stories are generally ‘regular’ stories about war, in Vonnegut’s smooth style. Wailing Shall Be In All Streets isn’t really a story, but a straightforward account of his experience of Dresden’s bombing – one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Allied forces during World War 2.
The real value of this book aren’t really the stories. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, and some are even excellent – Spoils is haunting in its short, brutal simplicity. But the real value is the introduction, the letter, the speech, Wailing Shall Be In All Streets and a few of the illustrations. Combined they provide a look at the tormented person that’s behind the facade of witty satire. It’s not that the tragedy doesn’t shine through in his other writing – the facade is cracked, and translucent in places – but these texts provide a direct, unobstructed look.
Vonnegut’s disgust is fueled by the horror he saw. Bodies boiled by water sprung from the plumbing that bursted by the firebombs’ heat, mangled corpses of children, charred elderly remains. 25.000 people died, and hardly any of those were soldiers. A war crime, by any standard.
Much of this collection is targeted at imperialism and the glorification of violence. As the empires of old are again meddling in violent conflicts not on their own soil, such critique remains valid and necessary. Kurt Vonnegut’s goals are obviously political, as his son Mark acknowledges in the introduction.
Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.
At the same time, and that’s what makes Vonnegut – and humanity in general – tragic, is the knowledge that the effect of such critique is nearing zero. Not coincidentally, at the very beginning of the introduction, there’s this quote: “We might as well have been throwing cream pies.” – Vonnegut’s estimation of the net effect of the antiwar movement on the course of the Vietnam War.
Suffice to say this collection is highly, highly recommended for all Kurt Vonnegut Jr. fans. If you liked Slaughterhouse-Five – one of my all time favorite books – this serves as a very interesting companion volume. At 234 pages, it’s a quick read, and Vintage issued a cheapo paperback, so there’s really no excuse passing on this one…