It is no secret that the tensions between our world’s nations are escalating, inching us ever closer to the very possibility of a World War Three. Leaving many to wonder what effect a world war would have on the already fragile state of our generation’s mental health.

Considering this, I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, an iconic anti-war polemic. Providing a semi-autobiographical picture of life as a prisoner of war during World War Two, Vonnegut’s novel merges reality with science-fiction elements to uniquely portray an ex-soldier’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 


Framing the main narrative with anecdotes from the author’s life, the reader is immediately informed “all this happened, more or less” (SH-Five, 1), a statement alluding to both the metafictional and non-fictional basis of the novel. Discussing his process of composition, Vonnegut contrasts the duty of a writer with the duty of a witness by deliberating his employment of literary techniques. In particular, the implications of dramatic tension and climax weigh on his consciousness. 

For example, a teasing glimpse of the novel’s possible ending is shared; the ironic death of a man Vonnegut witnessed being shot for stealing a teapot in the ruins of the (now) infamous Dresden firebombing. An ending such as this would provide a traditionally neat and fulfilling conclusion to a story exploring the unfairness of war, however, actual life rarely offers this satisfaction. Real men immersed in conflict exist beyond the events of war and must eventually return to life antebellum.

Time Travel  

After the war, the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes convinced he can travel through time and space. The jarring nature of the seemingly ridiculous superpower against the seriousness of war prompts us to question the character’s mental stability. 

The science-fiction elements of time travel can be psychologically analysed and equated to a commonly discussed symptom of PTSD known as becoming ‘triggered’, a term coined about the trigger of a gun. Men who have returned from war frequently described becoming triggered by everyday sights, sounds and smells that mentally transport them to the scenes of past trauma. 

Moreover, the fractured episodes of Billy’s experience allow Vonnegut to defy conventional chronology. Portraying the events of the novel linearly would suggest that the war was experienced singularly by organised men, yet the chosen protagonist, Billy, “a dazed wanderer” (SH-Five, 23), illustrates that it was fought by the young, inexperienced and confused.

Alien Abduction 

Billy also believes he was abducted by aliens known as Tralfamadorians. Several of his detailed experiences as a prisoner of war (henceforth referred to as POW) can be compared to his alien abduction and the bizarre conditions of his life on the planet Zircon-212. 

On one occasion, Billy stands nude and vulnerable in the prisoner camp’s delousing station whilst Paul Lazzaro studies the line of his fellow American POWs. Lazzaro scans the parade of bodies to decode which belongs to the man responsible for causing Roland Weary’s death, so that he may enact his revenge. In contrast, the Tralfamadorians strip Billy of his clothing to study him out of intellectual curiosity, reversing the expectation that the beings most disparate from oneself is the enemy.


It becomes increasingly evident that Billy uses his vivid imagination as a tool to make sense of his war-time trauma. Indeed, the seeds for Billy’s fantasy appear to be planted during his stay in the camp’s infirmary, when Rosewater introduces him to the writings of Kilgore Trout. Both he and Rosewater have grown sick of written explorations of human nature, for war forced them to witness its brutality firsthand. The current conflict-stricken world has made both men mentally ill, thus they find solace in the alternative realities afforded by science-fiction.

Using Delusions to Cope with Tragedy 

The Tralfamadorians do not perceive time as a series of passing moments, but rather view the past, present and future simultaneously. Eradicating the principle of cause and effect, the alien beings assert that fate is an unalterable, predestined design. 

Vonnegut emulates this philosophy by repeatedly inserting the apathetic phrase “so it goes” (SH-Five, 20), after any mentioned instances of violence or death. The resigned refrain is one example of how the author consistently uses understatement to convey the frequency of the unexplainable horrors experienced by the soldiers. 

The previously proposed climax of Derby’s death is continually anticipated by Billy, however when the man’s tragic end arrives it is not explored in detail, merely commented upon in a brief, casual manner. The sudden dispense of a major character reflects how death has been dealt unsentimentally to so many in the war. Unlike the experienced officer, Billy, a clumsy soldier, is spared from the surrounding mass homicide. 

An irony central to the novel, the American POWs take shelter in a slaughterhouse, a place where animals are mercilessly killed for the benefit of a society separate to their own. 

In response to violence human beings naturally ask, “why me?” (SH-Five, 66) the only answer Billy can find is the Tralfamadorians’ affirmation that “there is no why” (SH-Five, 55). This fantasy grants him some reprieve from his survivor’s guilt. Vonnegut conveys that positivity, however delusional, must be sought for one to survive the trauma of war.

Objectivity Vs Subjectivity 

Although the reader is continuedly reminded that Billy is a fictional character, every so often Vonnegut inserts himself into the narrative to speak for the novel’s sincerity, “I was there” (SH-Five, 49). 

Segments of documents depicting the war in a historically factual manner are included in the narrative to orchestrate the difference between the objectivity of the events and the subjectivity of personal experience. The author aims to avoid the impersonal nature many historians employ to portray war, an approach embodied by the ignorance of the character Rumfoord. 

Furthermore, the inadequacy of Rumfoord’s attempt, and the difficulty to document the reality of war is shown when a German photographer comes to take pictures of the POWs, “the photographer wanted something more lively though, a picture of an actual capture. So, the guards staged one for him” (SH-Five, 42).

To conclude, the brilliance of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five lies in the irony that it provides a realistic record of how many experienced World War Two despite the novel’s surrealism. The complex elements of science-fiction serve to demonstrate the complexity of PTSD suffered by individuals after the war has ended. 

Moreover, the protagonist, Billy, is not a hero, there are no heroes. Filling the story with a surplus of grandiose victors would diminish the suffering and inaptitude of the average soldier.