The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reading ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ in Baghdad: What Vonnegut taught me about what comes after war

Soldiers from the 5th Battalion of the 20th Infantry Regiment in Baqubah, Iraq, in March 2007. (Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall/U.S. Air Force)

A group of kids sat on the schoolhouse wall and watched Stryker 2-1 approach, and they had a way of knowing that children often do. Some of them plugged their ears.

It was March 14, 2007, in Iraq, which is on Earth. That means it was 12 years ago, but I’m here to tell you that’s not really true. That moment was 12 minutes ago and 12 days from now, a spring morning that waltzes across my synapses whenever it so pleases.

The stack of antitank mines exploded, and 2-1 achieved flight, which is unusual for a massive armored vehicle that looks like a square metal duck. Brian Chevalier, the driver, soared with it. His uniform blew off, and Chevy was nearly naked, as if he was being born at the same moment that he died.

The school walls were not thick enough for chain gun rounds the size of cigars. I watched a teacher in a classroom whoosh through the stages of grief all at once, but out of order, depending on the student she knelt beside.

Civilians danced at the crater when we left. Some of them were probably the parents.

People are curious about this period of my life. They don’t say Iraq. They say “it.”

So, they will ask: What was it like?

Twelve nanoseconds pass. It’s March 14, 2007, again.


It was Spring 2006. I was leaving for Iraq soon, and I had a big problem.

There was no one to receive my romantic letters, but killing and romantic letters are the chief concerns in a war, if I understood films correctly. I found Lauren on MySpace. It got romantic.

Handwritten notes crisscrossed vast oceans, and one of them asked if I had ever read a particular novel. It was by Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote about war and time travel, and how the past isn’t really the past.

Never, I wrote back. But please send books, I told her, because I had learned that the third chief concern of war is killing time.

A package traveled across vast oceans. It had various books, beef jerky, a romantic note and a new copy of “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

I tucked it into my cargo pocket and read it, cover to cover, as fast as I could, and I read it again. It came with me to guard posts in Baghdad and primitive outposts in the Diyala River valley. I passed it among my platoon mates to read under a red lens at night.

The war wasn’t going to last forever, we foolishly thought, and someday we needed to figure out what it all meant.


When someone on the base died, the Internet shut off for a day so that person’s family could answer a knock on the door from a service member in crisp white gloves. It’s called reduced communications, or river city. Then, across the globe, river city is over, and the Internet magically returns.

But other soldiers kept dying, and river city kept going, and I didn’t tell Lauren or anyone about what happened to Chevy for almost a week. So when soldiers briefly stopped getting killed, I wrote a group email to everyone.

It contained a code about death and life that only she would recognize.

The code would become more meaningful when Vonnegut died weeks later, on April 11. I was going to tell her that. And more bad news to come.

The code was this: “So it goes.”


I had already known the story of Dresden’s annihilation at the core of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” more or less.

British and American planes bombed the German city near the end of a war on a dubious mission to erode industrial strength. Vonnegut was there, along with Billy Pilgrim, his fictional protagonist.

Vonnegut was an Army scout captured in the Battle of the Bulge and shoved into a slaughterhouse meat locker in Dresden, before cathedrals and people were incinerated one night in mid-February 1945.

The bombs thudding above him sounded like the footsteps of giants, he wrote. Around 25,000 people were killed.

Vonnegut tried for years to write a true story about it. Publishers rejected him. So Vonnegut turned to time travel and a race of aliens called Tralfamadorians to explain trauma and violence, and how it is somehow both unspeakable and banal for civilization to perpetuate.

“So it goes” appears 106 times in the book, after every death, from children to bacteria.

Tralfamadorians don’t see death like humans, they tell Pilgrim when they abduct him. Death is just a difficult circumstance in a human’s life among better moments. And they pity humans who can only experience time as a point wherever they are, which makes death that much more depressing.

Time, to the Tralfamadorians, is the way humans “can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains,” Pilgrim explains.


Pilgrim tends to time-travel when something bad is happening: When he is thrown into a shower at a prison camp, after other lost soldiers abandon him in the snow, as a specimen of curiosity in an alien zoo.

What was he saying about memory? About trauma? I asked someone who’d know.

“Vonnegut was trying to incorporate those postwar experiences of PTSD,” said Julia Whitehead, the founder and chief executive of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis.

Post-traumatic stress can bend time, she said, and the sense of how recent or distant something is can be distorted when a memory is triggered. The library has constantly seen this theme play out, Whitehead said, through book discussion groups and workshops with veterans.

That may make sense as an escape from some bad memory. But what keeps minds racing back to trauma?

The world, I figured. There are U.S. troops fighting and dying in more countries in 2019 than when I was in Iraq in 2007, and when I see images of them on the news or Twitter, I peer closely. I look for the contours in the metal and plastic of M4 rifles where I’ve rested my hands, or infrared lasers I’ve fine tuned.

I look at how war has changed in 12 years and how it hasn’t changed in 1,200 years. I’m back there for a moment wherever I find myself — transported while on a city bus, time-traveling at work.

I can zoom through Google Maps and find the intersection where Chevy flew.

Whitehead figures Vietnam waltzed across Vonnegut’s synapses while he wrote “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was published 50 years ago last month, in 1969. He saw the country doused in napalm and Agent Orange. He saw what hadn’t changed in a quarter-century since Dresden.

“It must have been something that upset him every time,” she said. “How could it not reopen those wounds?”


It was April 2007, two months before we were scheduled to go home for good. Steve and I figured we’d be home soon. We didn’t want to answer the questions of it at home. We went to Europe for leave instead.

We saw the Eiffel Tower and Anne Frank’s tree. We stood on Omaha Beach to think about a war that made sense, before going back to ours.

We toured the Colosseum in Rome and stopped by an Internet cafe. I hadn’t known my company just ended river city.

Hilario posted on MySpace: “RIP SGT WILLIAMS.” I knew that was Jesse, my former team leader. He was killed by a sniper. I remember the last time I saw him alive, but I can’t remember what I said.

Years later, I’d have a dream: We were on separate buses that passed each other on the Pacific Coast Highway, and he hung out the window to wave farewell.


It was April 12, and we were a few hours’ drive from Dresden, in Frankfurt. We were catching a plane to Kuwait and then on to Baghdad. I logged off my email at a computer terminal and saw the news.

Vonnegut was dead. I wrote a quick note to Lauren and melted onto the tile.

I logged out again for another news bulletin. All units in Iraq were extended to 15-month tours as part of President George W. Bush’s surge plan. We were going home in June. Now it was September.

Maybe everyone in the Pentagon waited for Vonnegut to die, I thought, before cynically performing his trick. They were risking our lives even when we were supposed to be home. And they were bending time to do it.


I’m at a house party in 2018. An iPhone is streaming Blackstreet, and everyone is transported to another time that they heard them. A friend asked me something that was on her mind. I didn’t have to answer the question, she said, which meant I knew exactly what the question was.

“No Diggity” is playing. My friend has to raise her voice.

Did I kill anyone, she asks. In the war, she means. Not lately.

It’s March 24, 2007, and a Stryker in my company was blasted apart by an IED. One soldier’s leg was sheared off like a rose thorn. We’re on a rooftop and see movement in a doorway. An insurgent counterattack. I drop a 40-millimeter grenade into my launcher and deliberate the tiny curvature of the arc I need. The thwomp of it leaving the tube sounds like a Pringles can opening in a commercial.

The grenade goes through the doorway. I fire more, and so does Victor. Nobody is moving anymore. A Hellfire missile tears off the roof. Iraqi police later counted more than a dozen dead insurgents inside. We never trusted their reports. I still got a medal for solving a geometry problem.

“Yes,” I told my friend. “I think so.”

“Oh,” she said.


It was summer 2009, and Lauren had separated my books and DVDs from hers.

She placed a leather-bound copy of “Sirens of Titan” signed by Vonnegut into a box for me to collect later. It was a birthday gift she sent to me in Iraq, along with a romantic letter. I gathered my boxes and said goodbye.

We were in river city and never left.


It’s April 11, 2019, as I write this, and Vonnegut has been dead for 12 years, though a Tralfamadorian would take issue with that characterization.

One of his legacies is a famous passage in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” It’s about planes flying in reverse, where shrapnel flies out of people, back into the bombs and the planes take off backward from their runways, and so on, until everyone is just a baby again.

Vonnegut is saying it would be nice if the wisdom learned from a war could be used to reverse engineer the entire thing and keep it from happening at all. That is a lovely thought.

Sometimes I think of rewinding time as an intervention.

Maybe something I say to Jesse delays him just a moment, and he’s five seconds late to brushing his teeth and putting on his boots, and so forth, until the moment a sniper just misses Jesse’s blurred grin.

Or maybe I let Chevy win a poker hand in the barracks, and that luck spirals all the way to that school in Diyala province, and now he’s home with fading tattoos and learning he’ll be a grandfather.

But they’re around in other ways.

It was March 14 and it was April 8, and the platoon posted photos of Jesse and Chevy on Facebook like we do every year. And there they are, like a stretch of the Rocky Mountains.

They’re dead. They’re alive. They’re dead. They’re alive.

Read more reporting by Alex Horton:

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