The My-Stery: Slaughterhouse Five, Dead Presidents, War and PTSD, Pyschotrauma of Carnage, and The Escapist Fantasy


After reading Kurt Vonnegut’s famous and controversial novel, Slaughterhouse Five, one of the other works that came to mind was Dead Presidents, starring Larenz Tate. Besides both works detailing veterans with PTSD, previously related to shell shock at that time, after witnessing the terror of war, they both tie together the psychotrauma of witnessing that carnage and the fantasty of escapism.

The two pieces have a number of parallels. One of the memorable covers of Slaughterhouse Five is the yellow skull and crossbones on the striking red cover. The cover thematically reflects the Dead President’s movie cover of the painted skull used as a mask in the bank robbery. The climax of the novel, which it is named after, brings Billy Pilgrim, the story’s time-traveler, to a slaughterhouse for animals in Dresden. In Dead Presidents, the main character, Anthony Curtis, after coming home from war, works for some time in a butcher shop and has terrifying nightmares that include it. The imagery of carnage is linked to not only the widespread destruction that they viewed in war, but also the death of their innocence. Both characters are depicted as having changed, a kind of death, after traumatic experiences. Vonnegut repeatedly mentions blue and ivory colors of Pilgrim’s feet to show a kind of death that he has experienced. After the war and the plane crash, Pilgrim becomes more detached from the real world. Neither is Curtis the same. His wife Juanita in the violent argument they have before Curtis leaves for good mentions that he is not the same person he was before the war and she doesn’t know him anymore. Of course, he’s not, the war killed the old him.

Another parallel is the two works’ criticism of American capitalist social structure, social injustice and the mistreatment of veterans, most of whom have mental illness and/or are poor. They both highlight that American society values money more than human life, and soldiers and veterans get the short end of the stick. Pilgrim and Curtis’ disillusionment with the society leads to fantasies of escape, but in two different ways.

Pilgrim and Curtis’ specific home situations also influence how they react. There is an obvious racial and class divide between the two stories: Pilgrim is a white man who is well-off after marrying a rich woman, goes to optometry school and get a career after World War II. His illness is eased with that cushion; Curtis did not have the same luck. He is a black man returning after the Vietnam War and has trouble finding a job to support his girlfriend Juanita, their daughter, and the baby on the way. The only work he can find is in a butcher shop (not a good idea for someone who has PTSD after war). Pilgrim reacts with a flashbacks or jumbled thoughts (“time-traveling”) and a withdrawing fatalism in the novel, while Curtis has violent outburts probably due to the added stress. The former ends up lost in his own story of the Tralfamadorians and the latter is lost in the world of crime and bank robbery. In a sense, bank robbing is a delusion; one thinks that they will get away with it and live rich, but the most likely result is they will be put in prison, killed by cops or have to be on the run for the rest of their lives.

These two characters show that culture of America has produced a culture of death for them. The reading of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.’s monogram in Slaughterhouse Five details some legitimate criticisms of America that are similar to Dead Presidents, such as how it treats its poor and soldiers. Additionally the connection between Campbell, who is a labeled a traitor to America, and Curtis show that seemingly morally corrupt people are more complicated that they look. The name dead presidents has a double meaning: a term for money and a term for a non-living entity of money and “American values” that rules American society neglecting the people suffering in the society. Pilgrims life when he returns has a middle-class mask of it and Curtis’ shows the decay bubbling underneath. Their reality is invalidated or kept secret by the mainstream society and so they retreat into their delusional escape.They also show a fear that humans beings will not change. Pilgrim’s tralfamadorians don’t believe in free will. Pilgrim expects his death at the hands of Lazzaro who wants revenge. Curtis and his bank robbing crew show an inability to change, like Cleon as the minister willing to do wrong, the older veteran Kirby suggests that American society will not change (“that’s uncle sam for you, money to burn) in his turn to crime, and the skull masks used further connects capitalism and death.

Both stories end with the continued hiding and silencing of human injustice and hypocrisy. The bird at the end of Slaughterhouse Five cannot speak for Pilgrim and his feelings, but also represents the senselessness of war and massacre, and our desensitization from them. Dead Presidents ends with Curtis sentenced to life in prison even after he screams about that he fought for this country. The justice system doesn’t seem to care until someone is messing with their money or possessions, then they put him away in prison, like the Edgar Derby character in the novel (he is executed for stealing a teapot after the bombing of Dresden). He is put away like the others,so humans do not have to deal with our larger issues.

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