Vonnegut v. WWII | Castronova on Mother Night

Ted Castronova


In Mother Night Vonnegut finally unleashes a long-held rage directly at its target: The Second World War. Many people see WWII as horrible because of what Germans did. They tend to overlook what Russians, English, and Americans did. Vonnegut can’t, because he was witness to what American and British bombs did to German civilians. As an American POW, he had to haul their bodies up from cellars after Allied firebombing had roasted them alive.

After the war, the atrocities committed on Germans became one of the world’s forgotten horrors; something known to be true but best left unsaid. Only in 2003 did someone think to publish visual imagery.1

Vonnegut’s experience cannot be put into words. Veterans are gnostics: they have seen truths that others cannot see. Yet the trauma lives on inside them. It will not go away. But what can a writer do but write? So Vonnegut writes.

He struggles in this book. He wants to grab all of us by the shirt, shake us, and scream into our faces; but he knows that such writing is ineffective. The book starts with a narrative that seems independent of Vonnegut the man. But by the end, the author’s hands are very much on the reader’s shirt, shaking away. In a series of vignettes, Vonnegut unloads on haters, credible buffoons, pious evil-hunters, liars, fate, the heartless universe, and, most of all, those who simply refuse to see. The line between author and character washes away.

When it does, we see what’s left of the author: emptiness, expressed most powerfully by ironic reactions. Campbell himself is the foremost example. He loses his will to render judgment, or even to engage with other people in their passions. They seem so foolish to him. He often responds with a simple “um,” an expression which has become a regular tool of the sensitive person flabbergasted by this ridiculous world.

I wonder if the word “um” had ever before been used to such good effect in serious writing. Vonnegut uses it to express his bafflement at the world’s reactions to its own history. He cannot understand why people would continue to be so energized about stupid things, since the Second World War revealed what is truly important. And he cannot understand why people seem indifferent to the things that are important. He cannot understand how the world can return to normal after events like the Holocaust and the firebombings and the starvation of the Ukraine. Surely events like these must change everything. Surely? But no.

Thus, the irony. It marks our age; it has been the dominant thread in our culture these past 50 years. We are still living in the shadow of the war; we are still riding the long waves of its impact.

In one broadcast, Campbell makes references to the 106th Division near St. Vith. It is an attempt to warn the Americans that the Germans are about to attack in that sector, in an offensive that is now known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 106th was Vonnegut’s division; the Bulge is where he was captured. The rookie 106th had been placed there because nobody expected an attack. So, naturally, that’s where the attack came. Those men went from boot camp directly into the teeth of an SS Panzer offensive. The 106th was overwhelmed.

Irony must have seemed the only possible truth to the sensitive person in 1962. But it is 2017. Fifty-five years on. Irony might be approaching its sell-by date. Some of the grounds for post-war irony, nihilism, and existentialism now seem to be the (entirely understandable) result of shock, rather than a fundamental shift in human thinking. Let’s address the grounds for irony in Mother Night directly: American complicity in the horrors of WWII. The main character, Campbell, is a fine Nazi propagandist and an American agent. He does a wonderful job for both sides. He inspires Nazis in their cruelty, and releases critical intelligence to the Allies. He is working for both; he is the enemy of both; he contributes to everyone’s nasty behavior. After the war, Campbell cannot see anything in moral terms. Everything is senseless; everyone’s behavior was just as bad as it was good. There is no moral judgment to be had. And this being so, there is no reason to do anything. Eventually Campbell finds himself standing in the street, unable to move—because he can find no reason to do so.

The sensitive mind in 1950, 1960, or 1970 could be forgiven for seeing only moral equivalence, an equal depravity, in all the people and actions of the Second World War. It was that horrible. More than enough to shock a thoughtful person into speechlessness and utter apathy. War kills innocent people, yes. War implicates all fighters and their supporters in the commission of horrible deeds. Great wars generate gross misconduct. All true. But do these indisputable realities—which Vonnegut desperately wants us to see and acknowledge—necessarily lead to nihilistic conclusions? After the shock fades, will it never be possible to speak again?

But it is now 2017. We have the privilege of distance, of perspective. With this perspective, we can poke Vonnegut a little bit on his apathy. The Nazi regime in Germany set global historical precedents for cruelty, murder, deception, brutality, and terror. A small cabal of men plunged the world into a war that killed millions upon millions of innocent people. They showed themselves willing to do anything to extend the war and their power. They had to be stopped. Stopping them proved extremely difficult. Extreme measures were justified, including bombing German cities. When cities are bombed, horrible things happen. But that fact should not—indeed, must not—leave us speechless. Suppose a man happens upon another man in the act of murdering a child who can only be stopped by death itself. When the first man kills the would-be murderer, he will be speechless. He will have blood on his hands and will hate himself for it. But when perspective returns, he will understand that his act was a tragic necessity. And he would invite anyone who disagrees, who thinks he should not have intervened, to speak with the child’s mother.

In shock, Vonnegut, and the world, has had difficulty with the basic thought processes of moral discernment. Vonnegut left the war with an understandable anguish over the depredations of the allies. But from there he goes all the way to the other end of the spectrum, having Campbell say, “All people are insane, they will do anything at any time,” and “human beings . . . so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”

Is it really so? The Second World War left a shadow, but the shadow is fading. Perspective is returning. We sense that the situation is not as bad as Campbell depicts it. Pace Campbell, truth and love exist and are real; there are very good reasons to walk, talk, do, and make moral distinctions.

Love and truth not only permit moral discernment, they require it. In the aftermath of the Second World War, sensitive people understandably threw up their hands at the possibility of making moral judgments. How can one judge between a gassed Jew, a roasted German, a raped Russian, and an irradiated Japanese? It is hard. But difficulty in making distinctions does not mean there aren’t any. That’s a simple argumentative fallacy: the assumption that the fuzziness of a line implies that there is no line. No: difficulty determining a fact does not mean there is no fact to be determined. The existence of tough moral questions does not imply that moral questions have no answer. Those who gassed Jews did a horrible thing for no good reason; for a terribly bad reason, in fact. Those who bombed Germans did a horrible thing for a very good reason. There’s a moral difference there.

In great game of human life, WWII was a boss level for many. Many failed. But that does not mean there is no game, and no way to play well. Despite the difficulty, many people did respond well to the Second World War: Schindler, Kolbe, Wallenberg, Scholl, and the men who stormed Omaha Beach. Vonnegut too: He went through hell and came out screaming at us to look clearly at what happened. Yet as our hearts come clear of this nightmare, irony seems less and less needed. There are other ways to talk. Our minds are returning to the possibility of right judgment, prudent discernment, and quiet faith in the meaning and possibility of truth and love.


I’m supposed to be writing about games and play, therefore let me close with an insight that game theory offers to moral discernment.

Individuals are often hemmed in by social forces that no one controls. Consider two soldiers: One in gray, one in green. Gray assumes that Green will kill him on sight. Self-preservation therefore requires Gray to kill Green immediately if he sees him. Green understands that. Green therefore resolves that he must kill Gray on sight. Gray’s initial assumption is thereby confirmed. Two men at war cannot reasonably be asked to do anything other than kill one another.

But where does this state “war” come from? How did Gray and Green fall into this horrible situation? It was none of their doing. They are trapped. It is known as a “coordination game,” a game in which all players do best if they do what everyone else is doing. If all Greens are killing all Grays, then all Grays should kill all Greens, in which case the Greens’ strategy makes perfect sense. All of these people are rationally following the rule “Grays and Greens kill each other.” What is so maddening is the knowledge that there is another equilibrium here, in which Grays and Greens shake hands and part ways. Right? If Gray wants to do nothing more than shake hands, Green does not have to kill him. And since Green is not going to kill him, Gray is right to shake his hand. Coordination equilibrium theory shows that it is sometimes rational to conform to the general behavior, even if that behavior is bad for everybody.

This situation, which so maddened Vonnegut, is simply a trap. It is not willed directly by anyone; it is a dynamic into which societies are prone to fall. When the price of gasoline settles at $2.17 per gallon, that is the price we all must pay. When the hemline rises to 5” above the knee, we all must conform or suffer the shame of being out of fashion. Coordination equilibria determine the value of money, the speed of driving, and the proper way to jest. They are the social rules.

Who sets the rules? Nobody. The rules emerge, even in war. In 18th century European wars, nobody shot at officers. At Stalingrad, officers were the first target. Why and how coordination equilibria change is a question of history and culture. Game designers, however, have evolved several tricks for inducing the equilibria they want to see. You can tell players that the equilibrium is already in place: “People in this game are nice to one another.” You can give small rewards for the desired behavior. You can publicize behavior that conforms to the equilibrium you want, and hide behavior that violates it.

How did the strategy of firebombing come about? It emerged. In the Franco-Prussian War, French civilians took pot shots at German soldiers. The Germans responded by shooting innocents, a form of reprisal that, at the time, seemed horrific. The same happened in World War I. Germany also sent Zeppelins over London to drop random bombs. Then every country converted into total war status, dedicating all resources in the nation to act of the killing. Early in the Second World War, the Germans dropped a few bombs on Rotterdam, more on London, and far more than needed on Coventry. How were the Allies to interpret all this? Apparently, Gray had revealed through a clear pattern of past behavior that he and his family were going to kill Green and Green’s family. That was the coordination equilibrium in which Allied leaders found themselves in 1943. They did not choose it; it happened in the course of many small steps over the previous 70 years. Their response was rational, it was the only thing to do: Stop Gray and his family by any means necessary, including killing them.

Perhaps part of Vonnegut’s rage is his inability to understand the social forces by which such things come about. To a mind that has a better grasp on electrical circuits than human crowds, the Nazi movement must seem absolutely inexplicable. But it isn’t. The emotions behind it are not crazy at all: people love their own people. They suffer when so many of their children lie dead on the field, doubly if it seems to have been for nothing. They fear being poor and unemployed. They fear having their life savings erased by the machinations of global finance. They fear being the only one blamed (and forced to pay the heavy price) for an accident that was everyone’s fault. They fear being ruled by leaders who seem unable to rise to the challenge. They fear chaos, disorder, disruption, revolution. If all of these things happen in rapid sequence to a single population, their sorrow and fear naturally comes together into a firestorm of hate. I’m not defending the hate, I’m just trying to explain to the engineering mind where the energy comes from.

Given energy, then, society has lots of machines for putting things into motion. Angry people convinced of their own justified hatred can march, and they can vote. They can toss away their rights. They can push the whole world into new, horrible equilibria. How? By becoming blind to their own self-interest. Any level-headed person could have explained to the German people that the road they were on would lead only to a situation much worse than what they were already experiencing. But the history of the country muted the level-headed voices; it brought blood into the eyes and roaring into the ears.

In coordination equilibria, there is a terrible price to pay for the first player who steps out of an equilibrium. On him goes the shame and punishment of everyone else. The first lady to wear a mini-skirt took an awful risk. These independent moves pay off only if society follows. That is to say, new equilibria come about if many people change at once. This is what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989: Everyone understood it was time to change equilibria. But it took many years before someone had the courage to step out. Once a few did, millions followed, and the Iron Curtain fell. The Germans in the 1930s, with their bloodied eyes and howling ears, jumped toward a savage equilibrium because they could not think sensibly about well-being. When they all jumped together, they drew the rest of the world with them; the only rational response to a howling, violent crowd is to run away or start shooting.

Coordination equilibria are sometimes easier to change in one direction than another. In the area of peace and violence, it is much easier to get into a violent equilibrium from a peaceful one than vice versa. If the world is busy killing, one player deciding to be peaceful doesn’t help; he gets shot. But if players are at peace, all it takes is for one person to start shooting and the whole system descends into violence. So it was in the Second World War. The Germans in their rage elected a man who started shooting. The whole world was forced into the ruthless rationality of killing.

How does knowing all this aid in discernment? For one, it helps us avoid an all-or-nothing response. We need not conclude that this all happened because people are naturally 100 percent depraved or stupid. Rather: Rational, well-intentioned people can find themselves in situations where the rational, well-intentioned thing to do is to kill; or to refrain from rebelling against an unjust system; or to have faith in an imperfect country. People in such situations can be forgiven for trying to stay alive, for trying to do small things that are good but that also will not get them killed. History is full of quiet examples of nobility in evil times. Every slave mother who quietly gave love to her family and friends shone a light of nobility into a dark equilibrium. Knowing this—that rebelling against the madness is not always the morally best thing to do—means that the events of the Second World War do not force us to throw up our hands, and we don’t need to yell at people for not seeing the truth. They are seeing the truth, and the truth is, these situations are tragic but explicable, horrible yet capable of good response.

Perhaps if Vonnegut had grasped the rules of the game a little better, he would not have been left with the feeling that a person has “absolutely no reason to move in any direction.” There is always a reason to move; but the moves are not always obvious.


1. Jörg Friedrich, Brandstätten, Weltbild 2003.