Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1939) – A young American soldier awakens in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell.
A haunting anti-war manifesto, Johnny Got A Gun echoes with relevance even today.
Every war narrative is essentially anti-war. In news or fiction, each account of the dire costs is a call for pacifism. In Johnny Got His Gun, prolific writer and filmmaker Dalton Trumbo crafted one of the strongest imagery in war literature, by giving a voice to the voiceless.
His story centres on the tragic fate of one young soldier, who wakes to find himself blind, mute, deaf and paralysed. Unable to tell if he is alive or dead, he struggles to come to terms with his disfigurement and hold onto his slipping soul by recalling his idyllic past.
The horrors of his position is unimaginable. Trapped in someone else’s war and consequently his own body, Joe Bonham is a man who finds no reason to live, yet cannot die. However inconceivable his pain must be, we come close to knowing the victim in these vividly written pages.
Inspired by real-life soldier Ethelbert “Curley” Christian, Bonham’s gruesome circumstance provokes deep reflection of the true costs of war. Through his stream of thoughts, we learn of his juvenile naivety and blind patriotism as a youth, exploited for the political aims of an invisible elite. It forces a look at the working class sacrificed in the name of their country, their only legacy a statistic.
The heavy emotions are relentless, making this thin novel a difficult read. But it is an essential manifesto that means to shock its readers. It is just in its intent to agonise us, uncompromising in violence and brutality. It is written to linger, leaving behind questions that have no satisfying answers. Whose faction is justified in their cause? What is the meaning of freedom? Who defines it after all, and when will we ever be free?
What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let’s fight for liberty and he can’t show you liberty. He can’t prove the thing he is talking about, so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?
Johnny Got His Gun is a powerful story, in that it is not just about the tragedy of a single casualty. It is about the armies of men made to fight in the name of honour and peace. It is about how murder of strangers in the trenches seats in the conscience of an apathetic public.
Joe Bonham is not just a patient on the hospital bed. He is the soldier far away from home, the battered body that never made it back, and the veteran who returned to the prison of his own mind. In a way fulfilling his last wish, Bonham’s living corpse has been paraded in fiction, warning all readers about the cruel reality of futile warfare.
They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live. He ought to know. He was the nearest thing to a dead man on earth.
Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1939 as nations edged toward the second World War. More than thirty years later, Dalton Trumbo made a film adaptation (featured in Metallica’s One) during the latter years of the Vietnam war.
How necessary this novel remains to be, as hostile politics speaks of segregation and places us on the edge of another strife. Here we are today, almost 80 years after the first iteration of this narrative, still at war with each other. Are we still to be helpless in preventing these same mistakes in the modern world?