The most ubiquitous of these is “so it goes,” which is stated every time a person’s death is mentioned. No matter the circumstances of the death, this phrase emphasizes the futility of resistance and echoes the Tralfamadorian view that free will is an illusion. Whether the death is peaceful and comes in old age or is the result of brutal violence, there is no avoiding it. The phrase offers an unbiased explanation of death. It does not try to rationalize death or attach meaning to it. Instead, it poses is as unavoidable and routine. This is, technically, a true argument. It is troubling, however, when “so it goes” refers to a case of inexcusable violence or brutality. Edgar Derby’s execution, for example, comes as a punishment for stealing a teapot after surviving the bombing of Dresden. His death is senseless and tragic, but is still met with the phrase. In a way, this act is excused because this is how things were going to happen any way. Derby was going to die by execution regardless of human action and the executioners are pardoned for their brutality in the name of fate.
“Um” is Billy Pilgrim’s response to this Tralfamadorian logic. In a conversation with a Tralfamadorian, Billy Pilgrim is told that avoiding war is futile, just like avoiding death is. War is merely the way of the world and there is nothing to be done to stop it. In an attempt to comfort Pilgrim, the Tralfamadorian says, “’That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ ‘Um,’ said Billy Pilgrim” (Vonnegut 117). In the face of Tralfamadorian passive acceptance of even the ugliest parts of life, Billy Pilgrim does not seem satisfied. Although “um” is a remarkably non-committal response, it does signal at least a questioning of what the Tralfamadorian has said. If “so it goes” represents the idea that war is an unavoidable and natural aspect of human life, then “um” represents the hope that maybe things can change. “Um,” in its quiet disapproval, states that there is a desire to not live and relive the horrors of war and demands that people be held accountable for their own brutality.
As these two phrases are repeated throughout the book, their opposition, originally unclear, becomes starker. Although it can be comforting to accept an inevitability in both death and war, the removal of free will and therefore personal responsibility is worrisome to say the least. In the face of tragedy, it is sometimes easier to turn to ideologies like “so it goes,” like “everything happens for a reason.” Some things are too terrible to rationalize or understand, but there is certainly danger in defaulting to a position of passivity. In the case of Edgar Derby, fate is not to blame. This injustice can be attributed only to the fault of the men involved. This is not how things should simply “go.” Instead, such brutality should make us stop and say “um…”