Slaughter House 5- not a theatre of pleasure

There’s good reason why Tinpu’s children aren’t fighting in Ukraine, and it isn’t because they are too old! ‘There it goes’ as Kurt Vonnegut would say and I say, ‘Puzzle me that’.

Like everyone else, I have been full of admiration for the valour, the courage and grim determination of the Ukrainian people, this past week. To see men and women dressed for war, armed and full of resolve to face overwhelming force, to face a ruthless dictator’s war engine. The immediate outcome is not in doubt even if delayed but the long-term outcome is less predictable, perhaps even unfathomable for all of us. There are not too hidden parallels with Hitler’s early moves in Sudetenland, Poland, then Austria before turning his gaze upon the world.

I feel as if I too should volunteer, should seek glory in war. It must be wired in, this desire for death in the most atrocious circumstances for aims that are rarely realised. This is even more incomprehensible since I am cowardly as far as physical pain is concerned. At the first sound of Red Ivan’s tanks rolling in on the streets of Kyiv, I would be cowering in a corner, face to the wall, eyes shut and trembling.

The bombardment of Kharkiv, what I think of Kharkiv-Dresden took me straightaway to Vonnegut’s character Billy Pilgrim and his time in the European theatre of war. We first come upon him in December 1944
Last came Billy Pilgrim, empty-handed, bleakly ready for death. Bill was preposterous – six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots. On his feet were cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which he had bought for his father’s funeral. Billy had lost a heel, which made him bob up-and-down, up-and-down. The involuntary dancing, up and down, up and down, made his hip joints sore […] He didn’t look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.

But it is the description of the aftermath of the bombardment of Kharkiv-Dresden that snags at my spirit this morning.
He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comfort of their own homes in Dresden. They were all killed with their families.
So it goes. […]
It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everyone else in the neighbourhood was dead.
So it goes.

And the justifications were always going to be tendentious for the brutal tragedy that is Karkhiv-Dresden

I deeply regret that British and US bombers killed 135,000 people in the attack on Dresden, but I remember who started the last war and I regret even more the loss of more than 5,000,000 Allied lives in the necessary effort to completely defeat and utterly destroy Nazism (Lieutenant General Eaker).

That the bombing of Dresden was a great tragedy none can now deny. That it was really a military necessity few, after reading this book, will believe. It was one of those terrible things that sometimes happen in wartime, brought about by an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Those who approved it were neither wicked nor cruel, though it may well be that they were too remote from the harsh realities of war to understand fully the appalling destructive power of air bombardment in the spring of 1945 (Air Marshall Saundby).

The unimaginable suffering and anguish being bestowed on the people of Karkhiv-Dresden, as we speak, in the full glare of our observation and with little regard for common humanity is simply incomprehensible. And then to speak, almost casually, of using the nuclear option is of course unconscionable. But words fail me; how to characterize this other than with disgust, is beyond me.

And what about this preposterous statement by Truman-Tinpu

We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise that Japanese have above ground in any city…We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war […]

So it goes & Puzzle me that!

Things are moving so fast in Ukraine, it is practically impossible to keep up, yet keep up we must. It is compelling to the point of an obsession. The destruction of life, livelihood and property continues apace. It is the asymmetry of power that is most galling, the witnessing, in real time, of the Angel of Death visiting other lives with imprecision and arbitrariness. And our powerlessness to alter the outcome, so that we become complicit bystanders in the wilful destruction of life.

How long before we are forced to choose sides, I mean really choose sides? Then the final slide into the unthinkable will commence.

So it goes.

Finally, I am reminded of Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) today. In ‘Verses on the Unknown Soldier’, he wrote

Millions of dead slaughtered wholesale
Have trampled a path in the void,
Good night and best wishes to all of them
On behalf of the strongholds underground

Oh, unbribable sky of trench warfare,
Sky of massive wholesale deaths,
For you and by you, the whole of you,
I rush with my lips through the dark […]

And in ‘Ottave’, writing of Stalin, and it could very easily be of Tinpu, he said

[…] “the wild man in the Kremlin,
Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin.”

Each thick finger of his as fat as a worm,
To his ten-ton words we all have to listen,

His cockroach whiskers flicker and squirm
And his shining thigh-boots shimmer and glisten.

Surrounding himself by scrawny-necked lords,
He plays on his servile half-human hordes

Some mewl, some grizzle, some moan,
Prodded by him, scourging us till we groan


At each execution, he belches his best
This Caucasian hero with his broad tribesman’s chest.

So it goes.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

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