Why teach Slaughterhouse-Five?


“I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

“I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think they need machinery like that.”[1]

Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden on February 13, 1945, when it was firebombed by the Allies in one of the most controversial attacks of World War II. Exploring Vonnegut’s letter home to his family, as well as the firebombing of Dresden, Tokyo, and the Blitz in London can help students develop a more thoughtful, nuanced discussion of war. Whether the book is read as a science fiction or a semi-autobiographical novel, it leaves no doubt that Vonnegut’s experience as a young man in Dresden was one of the most important experiences of his life.

Steven Pinker lists Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a list of books printed around the 1970s that coincided with the success (finally) of an anti-war movement that had been seen as kooks and dreamers. It is an important artefact in the emergence of contemporary attitudes toward fighting and war.

Along with other iconic novels, Slaughterhouse-Five was subject to banning campaigns in the late 20th century. Talking about the banning of books, and what would be lost if books such as this were banned, creates an opportunity to explore the motivations for and cost of censorship with your students.

Finally, Billy Pilgrim’s alien encounter or mental break (allow your students to decide) creates an opportunity to talk about the mental and emotional strain that affects veterans, and to discuss mental health in your classrooms. The author of this study guide reached out to combat veterans to find the resources that they wish every teenager could see about post-traumatic stress disorder to try to chip away at some of the myths and stigma surrounding mental health.

Slaughterhouse-Five can be read with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (see study guide at LiberalStudiesGuides.ca), another book written by a war veteran and exploring similar themes.

[1] Vonnegut, Kurt. (1991 [1969]). “Slaughterhouse-Five”, Dell Publishing Edition. p. 19.


Curriculum Connections

Intermediate/Senior Level English

Intermediate/Senior Level History

Senior Level Canadian & International Law

Senior Level Challenge & Change in Society

Senior Level Canadian & World Issues


Slaughterhouse-Five Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut’s letter home as a POW, also online here.


Chapter 1 and POW letter:

Slaughterhouse Five in historical context

New York Times Book Review – Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children’s Crusade

Dresden and bombing in WWII

History.com – The Bombing of Dresden can also be found online here.
History.com – The Firebombing of Tokyo can also be found online here.
History.com – Blitzkrieg can also be found online here (some graphic images).

BBC – History – Germany bombs London also available online here.

The Globe and Mail – Bombing of Dresden still a matter of debate

The Atlantic created a feature on the firebombing of Dresden for the 70th anniversary of the attack on February 13, 2015. You can find it here (some graphic images).


Conscription – The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chapters 2 – 4:

Prisoners of War in Canada

Reading and Remembrance – Homeland Stories: Enemies Within


Chapters 5 – 7:

The costs to soldiers of war

The Globe and Mail – Suicide toll reveals how system failed Canada’s soldiers and veterans


Chapters 8-10:

A Soldier’s Experience

Major Douglas Thorlakson – A Soldier’s Story – Combat Recovery


Cumulative exercises:

The challenge of trauma:

Canadian Mental Health Agency – Pamplet on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

CBC News – The traumatic effects of extreme stress

Romeo Dallaire – The war doesn’t end when soldiers return home – The Globe and Mail

Health Sciences Association of Alberta – Canada’s warrior will not quit – Roméo Dallaire has left the Armed Forces, but he’s still fighting for those with PTSD

Canadian War Museum – Trench Conditions – “Shellshock” _ Canada and the First World War

The Globe and Mail Video – Romeo Dallaire talking about child soldiers, PTSD, and mental health


Readjustment to civilian life

Russell – How Canadian vets struggle to transition from combat to civilian life (Global News)

Investigation reveals 54 Canadian soldiers died by suicide after war in Afghanistan – The Globe and Mail

Video of Survivors in the Veterans Transition Network


Other Teaching Guides:

Slaughterhouse-Five Random House Teaching Guide