Rumfoord was a retired brigadier general in the Air Force reserve, the official Air Force Historian, a full professor, the author of twenty-six books, a multimillionaire since birth, and one of the great competitive sailors of all time. His most popular book was about sex and strenuous athletics for men over sixty-five.
The narrator describes Bertram Rumfoord, a man sharing a hospital room with Billy after a plane crash. Bertram, a self-important man, injured himself in a ski accident. Rumfoord espouses a stereotypically unrealistic view of war: that battle is a glorious and manly pursuit, in which great men can prove their worth. Waylaid in the hospital by an innocuous accident, the aging Rumfoord needs this masculine fantasy now more than ever to bolster his ego.
Rumfoord ordered her to sit down and read the Truman statement now. He didn’t know that she couldn’t read much. He knew very little about her, except that she was one more public demonstration that he was a superman.
Here, the narrator describes how Rumfoord bosses around his much younger wife Lily when she comes to visit him in the hospital. For Rumfoord, Lily serves as a trophy whose youth and beauty undeniably prove his virility. Their relationship illustrates the selfishness and lecherousness of the “alpha male’s” inflated ego. Rumfoord believes Lily is a lesser being, and in his mind, he has erased her personality to make room for what he wishes to project on her.
It was difficult for Rumfoord to take Billy seriously, since Rumfoord had so long considered Billy a repulsive non-person who would be much better off dead. Now, with Billy speaking clearly and to the point, Rumfoord’s ears wanted to treat the words as a foreign language that was not worth learning.
When Billy, who until now has remained mostly silent, finally decides to talk to Rumfoord, Rumfoord chooses to ignore him. To maintain his own superiority, he views Billy as weak and inferior. Rumfoord’s selective hearing reflects the wartime tendency to choose what one believes rather than believe what is true. When practiced on a larger scale, this tendency costs lives.
[H]e said to Rumfoord, “I was in Dresden when it was bombed. I was a prisoner of war.” Rumfoord sighed impatiently. “Word of honor,” said Billy Pilgrim. “Do you believe me?” “Must we talk about it now?” said Rumfoord.
In this exchange, Billy tries desperately to get Rumfoord to acknowledge what he went through, but Rumfoord views Billy’s trauma as an inconvenience. Paradoxically, Rumfoord is an Air Force Historian—his job requires him to care about these kinds of stories. In reality, Rumfoord only feels interested in the “fun” war stories. Glory is patriotic and manly, but trauma is too difficult.
“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden. “I know,” said Billy. “That’s war.” “I know. I’m not complaining.” “It must have been hell on the ground.” “It was,” said Billy Pilgrim. “Pity the men who had to do it.” “I do.”
When Rumfoord finally listens to Billy’s story about the bombing of Dresden, he still believes he’s an authority on Billy’s own experiences. To keep up appearances, Rumfoord acknowledges the bombing must have been awful, but he insists that Billy couldn’t possibly understand the big picture. All Billy really wants is for someone to listen, but Rumfoord feels threatened by Billy’s trauma. If war really exists as an inglorious travesty, then all of Rumfoord’s noble writings and manly posturing are for naught.