As a young man, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and held prisoner in Dresden, where he witnessed the pointless destruction of that city by Allied bombers in the very final days of World War II.
Slaughterhouse-Five, arguably his best novel, describes that event. In it, the novel’s hero/anti-hero, Billy Pilgrim, describes watching a movie about the air war, run backward as the projectionist re-wound the film.
(If you don’t know what that means, ask your grandparents.)
“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses,” Vonnegut wrote, “took off backward from an airfield in England. “
“Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backward, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen.”
“They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backward to join the formation.”
“The formation flew backward over a German city that was in flames.”
“The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.”
“The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. “
“But there were still a few wounded Americans though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.”
“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals.”
“Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work.”
“The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”
Ken Burns opened his 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary on the Vietnam War by running period film clips . . . backwards.
He did so, I like to think either as an homage to Vonnegut and those loved and lost in and over Dresden nearly three-quarters of a century ago; as a prayer that the idiocies that gave us both Dresden and Vietnam might be de-constructed so the “they would never hurt anybody ever again; or perhaps both.
As of this writing North Korea has announced that it considers itself at war with an America led by a President who seems bound and determined to provoke would be the most destructive clash of arms since the end of Vonnegut’s War in 1945, forgetting perhaps that, technically, the Korean War never ended, and the North has never forgotten it.
Given the effect of the accidental election of Donald Trump, it’s a pity we can’t run this film backward.