Absurdity of War

The contemporary events often find their reflection in the literary masterpieces. Similarly, an American satiric writer Kurt Vonnegut offers his peculiar vision of the world. In an ironic manner, the author of All the King’s Horses and The Manned Missiles depicts the ideological animosity exhibited the Communist leaders as well as the deepness of the personal tragedies endured by the involuntary participators during the Cold War.   

Written in the midst of the Cold War, the stories reflect the contemporary international situation of rivalry between the USA and USSR. While the two adversaries had never engaged in the direct assault, the world periphery became the battleground for maintaining the spheres of influence. In the 1950s, the USA applied a wide range of diplomatic, economic and military tools to contain the spread of Communism across the world. The American government was especially inclined to solve the issue of the Suez Canal by advocating the compromise between Britain, France, Israel and the pro-Communist authorities of Egypt. At the European front, the U.S. investors ceased the opportunity for investing the American capital into the newly emerged European Economic Community. The economic expansion was especially important in the view of the French decision to develop their nuclear weapon. The acquisition of the national arsenal of the atomic bombs by France signified the undesirable atmosphere of mistrust within the Western Alliance. Meanwhile, the U.S.  officials were horrified by the possibility of losing the leading role in the technological advancement after the launch of the first space satellite Sputnik I by the Soviets on October 1957. The historical facts strongly indicate the defining impact of the Cold War on the domestic and foreign policy of the main adversaries as well as on the whole world.

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Importantly, the ideological and military confrontation between America and Russia influenced the lives of the ordinary people. Vonnegut deliberately resorts to irony to emphasize the absurdity of war and widespread hysteria. In All the King’s Horses, sixteen main survived the airplane crash only to be captured by the Communist guerrilla chief, Pi Ying. Colonel Bryan Kelly, his family, and compatriots were immediately subjugated to the sophisticated torture, whereas every member of the group impersonated a chessman and the victory meant liberation from captivity. Since the very beginning, the story is laced with irony. On one occasion, Pi Ying compares the dreadful situation with “good sports” while pointing out the inferior value of human life compared to the significance of the victory. The ruthless leader of guerrillas argues that “a chess game can very rarely be won… without sacrifices.” Using the allegory of the chess game, Vonnegut accurately reflects the realities of the Cold War with two great states playing with the states on the periphery as the chess pieces. The irony is manifested in the reversed positions of the main characters, whereas the Americans had to concede to being a pawn, a role to which the Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American countries are so accustomed to.

The Manned Missiles illustrates the correspondence between two grieving fathers of astronauts. The Soviet stone mason, Mikhail Ivankov, shares the precious memories of his deceased son Stepan with the American owner of the gas station, Charles Ashland. In the same sympathetic manner, Ashland describes the life and character of Bud, his son and the best pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces. Vonnegut explicitly emphasizes the irony of the situation, whereas the young and bright people became victims of the armed race. In the writer’s words, the “boys were experted to death” while the billions of dollars were infused in the childlike technological competition between the USA and Russia. Both sides believed that the space exploration could have the military application. Evidently, the main characters of the discussed stories endured the consequences of the Cold War animosities by facing the straightforward hostility and contributing to the seemingly never-ending pursuit of the military advantage.

While the stories deal with the same theme of the destructive wartime, they portray the Communists in a different way.  In All the King’s Horses, the characters of Pi Ying and the Russian observer Major Barzov embody the images of the cold-blooded and forehanded masterminds. As a radical and fearless adherents of Communism, the two heroes justify the inhumane treatment of the prisoners by highlighting the American hypocrisy. It is evident from Pi Ying’s sarcastic inquiry “Is it for the love of God that Americans make bombs and jet planes and tanks?” Meanwhile, the story clearly suggests that the image of Major Barzov is rather complicated. While Pi Ying is more concerned with orchestrating the painfully slow execution, the Russian officer declared the neutral position and remained silent throughout the game. Only upon the death of Pi Ying, Barzov reveals his true agenda. He appeared to be the real master of the situation by ceasing the power without any friendly or respectful attitudes towards the deceased guerrilla leader. The lack of emotional response is most likely to signify the overall position of Russia; the USSR prefers to conceal its involvement in the domestic affairs of another state and to take control only in the extreme situations. Major continues the game only to prove his brightness, but releases the prisoners out of the practical necessity; the international scandal is highly undesirable for Russia. In this scene, the Soviet officer exhibits the peculiar mixture of arrogance and calculating mind. 

In The Manned Missiles, Vonnegut, by contrast, concentrates on the similarity of the war impacts on the lives of the ordinary people. While the author condemns the armed race, driven by the high officials of both states, Vonnegut ironically emphasizes the peace-loving intentions and the scientific curiosity, displayed by Stepan and But. According to his father, the young Russian astronaut had no inclination to participate in applying the obtained knowledge about space for military purposes. The story vividly indicates the conflict of interests, whereas the young scientist was merely the involuntary contributor to the technological competition between the two ideological enemies. While the plots of both stories perfectly fit the contemporary historical context, they portray the Communists from different points of view.

The identified differences in depicting the American adversaries allow deriving several historical conclusions. Firstly, the international situation was highly tense and dangerous. Two opponents struggled to overthrow the balance of power by spreading their influence in Europe and the Middle East and launching the armed race. Secondly, the Cold War evoked the sense of distrust and hostility among the immediate participators of the ideological conflict. The image of Pi Ying is the embodiment of cruel contempt and despise while Major Barzov impersonates the treacherous cunning of the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, the story of two inconsolable fathers illustrates the price measured in human casualties that both governments are willing to pay for accomplishing their goals. The author strongly underscores the superior meaning of the related human costs as the uniting factor in the midst of war as the main characters express their hopes regarding the symbolic meaning of deaths for the American and Russian nations. Evidently, the stories offer the new understanding of the Cold War events. While the representatives of the Communist states exhibited the enmity towards the Americans, the ordinary people frequently endured the tragedy of personal loss.

In conclusion, the prominent American writer accurately captures the atmosphere of mistrust and animosity that penetrated the relations between the adherents of two opposing ideologies. Vonnegut endowed the fictional American adversaries with such traits of character as cold blood, insidiousness, and prudence. While these features characterize the Communist officials, the Russian civilians were the one to carry the burden of human losses in the midst of the raging war.

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