One of the oldest sayings is that there are “no atheists in foxholes.” But for those soldiers either wounded or hit with the body parts of their exploding friends, the more apt expressions were caught by Paul Fussell, forty-percent disabled World War II vet and the most articulate historian of war.
Before combat, Fussell catches the mindset of the virgin soldier:
“It can’t happen to me. I’m too clever/agile/well-trained/good-looking/beloved/tightly laced etc.”
Then after combat, the realization hits:
“It is going to happen to me, and only my not being there is going to prevent it.”
Kurt Vonnegut, definitely “there,” amazingly, emerged from the war more optimistic and, although not believing in God, saw such faith as necessary.
Vonnegut was captured in Germany at its most bombed and strafed, and spent the remainder of the war within torturing distance of the German guards in the Dresden prison camp he would immortalize in print. His comrades died within mere inches of him: 150 killed by Allied bombs on a troop train bearing Vonnegut to prison; upon getting out fourteen were killed by a Russian plane.
From this, Vonnegut could have concluded he was spared by God for great things. But he took from the war only irony and the idea that humans have no preordained destiny. Vonnegut remained a lifelong atheist—not even old age tempted him toward the possibility of a heaven—but he was an odd atheist. He constantly advised those without families to join a church, which would provide them with an extended one—“as essential to humans as food and shelter.” He found Christianity much more “human” than other religions and noted that the Catholic Church provided shelter to Vietnam draft resisters.
This is extraordinary, for most ex-soldiers of the “Good War” came back angry that their efforts to liberate Europe from tyranny brought in a new form of it in the personage of Josef Stalin. Others were irritated to the point of violence by the civilian view that combat was an athletic contest that followed the rules of sportsmanship. But Vonnegut returned a humanist. He not only fore-swore killing but hating as well. In a letter to his friend and fellow writer Jerome Klinkowitz, Vonnegut proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution, not to ban guns or punish war criminals, but instead advocating “that every newborn will be sincerely welcomed, that every young person reaching puberty will be declared an adult, that every citizen will be given worthwhile work to do, and that every citizen will be made to feel that he or she will be sincerely missed when he or she is dead.”
Vonnegut described his religion as “freethinking,” and this led him into all sorts of deviations from secular doctrines. As broached in a 1999 letter to friend Robert Maslansky, he found natural selection “absurd” as the philosophical basis for Nazi atrocities. This teleological socialist found humankind as composed of “warlike primates.” But Vonnegut never completely lost his faith in the human potential for good and wanted on his tombstone the quote from Nietzsche that “Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism.”
For all his adoption by the New Left, Vonnegut avoided settling into any ideological ruts. Refusing to become more conservative with age, Vonnegut never stopped questioning everyone and everything in the most gentle way possible. “Most people don’t have good gangs, so they are doomed to cowardice,” he wrote to novelist Mary Bancroft in 1972. “The Utopian dreaming I do now has to do with encouraging cheerfulness and bravery for everyone by the formation of good gangs.”