Portrayals of the Armed Services in Slaughterhouse-Five and Billy Budd, Sailor

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book by Kurt Vonnegut that gives an account of the experiences of soldiers during the last years of World War II. The book focuses on Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier captured and imprisoned by the German soldiers during the war and highlights some of his life events before and after the war. On the other hand, Billy Budd, Sailor is a book by Herman Melville which explores the conditions and circumstances during a war that motivates people to change. The narrative reveals how soldiers lose their innocence, the corruption among military leaders, injustice in times of war, as well as heroism. The narrative focuses on the story of Billy Budd, a skilled young sailor who eventually becomes a legend due to his integrity in a corrupt world. This paper examines how armed services are portrayed in both books based on the narratives. In both stories, the authors reveal that armed services during war were characterized by a lack of free will, a high level of discipline and perseverance in the worst conditions, as well as the idea of punishment for wrongdoing.

In their narratives, both Vonnegut and Melville note that armed services do not accommodate aspects like free will. Vonnegut states that human beings are the slaves of predestination. Hence, their actions are prescribed before they occur. In this case, war is inevitable, and when it comes to service in the army, soldiers have no choice but to go to war, whether they like it or not. For instance, during Billy Pilgrim’s Lions Club meeting, the speaker states that ‘Americans had no choice but to keep fighting in Vietnam until they achieved victory, or until the Communists realized that they could not force their way of life on weak countries’ (Vonnegut 49). In this regard, the phrase ‘no choice’ suggests that armed services did not involve free will from the soldiers, and that war continues because it must be won.

Additionally, there was a prayer inscribed on Pilgrim’s office wall which read, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change’ (Vonnegut 50) which shows that soldiers had to accept the consequences of war because most of them were beyond their control. Pettersen, a major motif in Slaughterhouse-Five, says that ‘Free will does not exist since all that exists is destined to exist according to the structure of the universe’ (Vonnegut 89). Therefore, the suggestions that the war in Vietnam was something that soldiers had no choice over, and the prayer on the wall and Pilgrim’s admittance portray war as an inevitable occurrence that lacks consideration for free will.

Based on Billy Budd, Sailor, the idea of no free will is depicted through the impressment of sailors in England. The narrative outlines that there were horrible conditions on the navy ships that resulted in the impressment of about half of all the sailors, who were forced to become part of the navy against their will. There were impressment agents who forced all types of men to fight in the war, including those who lacked the required skills. Melville (315) states that ‘the London police were at liberty to capture any able-bodied suspect, any questionable fellow at large ad summarily ship him to the dockyard or fleet.’ As such, even criminals were forced to fight in the war. Therefore, armed services were characterized by a lack of free will and entailed coercion to combat war, regardless of one’s expertise.

Secondly, armed services required the utmost discipline and involved punishment for wrongdoing. In Billy Budd, Sailor the author highlights that sailors were governed by a set of regulations meant to moderate their behavior and that the punishments for offenses in the navy were harsher than those included in civilian law. Therefore, armed services required a high level of discipline and obedience from the sailors who were involved in the war (Melville 13). The sailors were considered slaves who were obligated to demonstrating high levels of patriotism and remained dedicated to the protection of their country and the citizens. The failure to recognize the rules that governed sailors’ behavior not only risked the sailors’ downfall but the destruction of his nation as well. Therefore, laws and punishments were formulated to ensure that sailors were disciplined as long as they were in the navy. Some of the forms of punishment included flogging or death for significant offenses.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, every soldier was expected to be disciplined as it was considered a key aspect to succeeding against the enemy. Therefore Vonnegut (39) notes that it was important for soldiers to maintain a high level of discipline, and any violation resulted in harsh punishment. For instance, in Slovik’s case, Billy read the judge’s opinion which states that Slovik had challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline in the army depended on a firm decision geared towards addressing this challenge. Therefore, a death penalty was to be imposed not for retribution, but for the maintenance of discipline that was necessary in helping the soldiers win against their enemies. Moreover, discipline entailed perseverance in the harshest conditions because the soldiers had a duty to fight, remain loyal, and ensure that justice prevails.

Thirdly, armed services are portrayed as pressurizing, which results in the development of injustices in times of war. Soldiers face challenges and endure harsh conditions that could force them to engage in injustices due to the pressure that war puts on them. Furthermore, war changes soldiers, thus making them to oppress fellow soldiers, their enemies, or civilians. For instance, in Billy Budd, Sailor, the author shows how war leads to the violation of human rights and human dignity. Captain Vere and his officers became corrupt, especially during the impressment of sailors. The impressment of criminals became deliberate as the navy obtained criminals directly from the jails knowing that they lacked the necessary skills and expertise.

Furthermore, the Captain allowed injustice to prevail. In the book, the author notes that the fleets were defrauded by injustice, which was based on violence and cruelty against the sailors. During Billy’s trial, Captain Vere and his officers tried to enforce laws that would necessitate Billy’s execution but failed because of Billy’s moral instincts that helped him prove his innocence. Captain Vere was a tyrant who was open to violence and injustice that characterized the navy. The harsh treatment resulted in the soldiers’ mutiny against their commanders to protest the violent treatment and injustices that were against the laws and practices of the British navy.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the author reveals that armed services entailed cold-bloodedness, brutality, and cruelty demonstrated by the soldiers due to the pressure from the war. POW experienced injustices from German soldiers who treated them with less dignity. “One soldier in black was having a drunk hero’s picnic all by himself on top of a tank. He spit on the Americans. The spit hit Roland Weary’s shoulder…”(Vonnegut 53). The German soldiers were brutal to the captured soldiers and treated them as lesser humans. For instance, Billy Pilgrim was so much tortured by the German soldiers that others noticed his critical state. For example, one English was filled with pity when he saw Pilgrim and said, ‘My God—what have they done to you, lad? This isn’t a man. It’s a broken kite’ (Vonnegut 77). This shows that armed service entailed brutality and injustice perpetrated against soldiers who fought in the war.

Moreover, war pressurized soldiers to seek recognition for their efforts, thus causing some of them to resort to injustices against fellow soldiers. For example, Claggart, in an attempt to remain relevant, hated Billy. He was jealous of Billy’s likability, thus prompting him to spy on Billy and report his wrongdoings, even if it meant making false allegations. Such actions almost led to Billy’s execution, supported by Captain Vere’s wicked ways. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut (31) portrays Weary as a dominant and tough individual who takes advantage of the war to feel essential and seek recognition. Weary blames Billy for his frustrations and insecurities by insulting him and treating him unjustly. Therefore, it is evident that armed services are characterized by pressures that change soldiers’ behavior and breed injustice in times of war.

In summary, war is inevitable in human society, and each time war erupts, there’s a need for armed services. The books, Slaughterhouse-Five and Billy Budd, Sailor reveal that in times of war, armed services are characterized by a lack of free will because soldiers, as well as civilians, might be forced to fight for their country. Additionally, armed services require a high level of discipline among soldiers to enable them to succeed against their enemies. Nevertheless, these services could, at times, put too much pressure on the soldiers, thus resulting in oppression and injustices.


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