Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A young soldier is horrifically injured during World War 1 and wakes up to a living nightmare. Johnny Got His Gun is possibly the most stomach-churning book about war ever written. It really is not for the fainthearted. Yet in truth, it is a book that everyone should read before they even think about supporting a war, any war. It hurts to read it, but if you have the courage then you will be richly rewarded.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 309 Date: April 2001
Publisher: Citadel Press
ISBN: 0806512814

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Joe wishes the phone would stop ringing. It goes on and on. That must have been some awful wine he drank last night (or was it cognac? or was it absinthe?) because his head hurts so much it could burst. Who could let a phone ring on and on like that? Perhaps it's not a hangover, perhaps he's sick. Even hangover headaches aren't this bad. And someone really should answer that phone.

Struggling through the fog of the pain in his head, Joe goes to answer it. And suddenly he knows why it's ringing. It's ringing to tell him that his father has died. Head pounding, Joe takes the call and receives the news from his mother. He's done that before. Head still pounding Joe realises he's dreaming. Yes, he's sick, it's not a hangover. Fading in and out, feeling by turns afraid and peaceful, dreams sometimes serene, sometimes frightening, it is a while before Joe realises how badly hurt he is. He's covered in bandages from head to toe, and he's deaf, he can't hear anything at all that is real. But despite his deafness that phone just keeps on ringing. And yet it is worse even than that. Joe is so horrifically injured that he can't move, will never move again. Worse even still, he has lost four of his five senses; the only one remaining to him is the sense of touch and that merely passive.

Can you imagine how it must be for your thoughts and feelings and impulses to exist only inside your own mind? To be unable to communicate? To be unaware of the presence of another human being until they touch you? To see no light? Hear no sound? To be forever still? To be unable to satisfy a single physical need or impulse? But also to be able to remember all these things? To remember yourself as you once were?

This is how it is for Joe. Wandering in his mind Joe spends his time in memories of his previous life: of his poor but happy childhood in "god's country", Colorado; of his mother and father who loved each other and him and who he loved; of the bittersweet first girlfriends loved and lost; of moving to Los Angeles; of friends and jobs; of being a soldier. He fights to regain even the tiniest footholds into the world outside his terribly injured body: to recognise the passing of time; to keep his sanity, even if it is a solitary sanity; to find some way, any way, to communicate some thing, any thing, to someone other than himself.

Joe had been blown up by an artillery shell in France during World War I.

And I really don't think I can do any more than set the scene. Johnny Got His Gun is not a book for the faint hearted. It doesn't let up for a moment, even to its final pages. You could, with justice, call it terrifying. Written not as a stylistic, but as a literal stream of consciousness, without pause or punctuation, just as your own thoughts and dreams lack the refining structures of chronology and grammar, Johnny Got His Gun is unnerving. It is also incredibly sensuous. In a world where almost all feeling is lost the feeling that does remain becomes resonant, crystal clear, and the memories of the senses that once were become all the more vivid for being memories that fill a conscious but isolated mind. In a struggle for reference I think you could consider the moods and atmospheres in the headlong rush of the opening lines of the Ginsberg poem Howl, or the fear, confusion and emotional pain in the film Jacob's Ladder and you'd be somewhere near Johnny Got His Gun. There is plot; there is progression, but there is little in the way of redemption.

Written in 1938 and published the following year, Johnny Got His Gun is the story of one war given birth just as another was beginning. You may know its author, Dalton Trumbo, as one of the Hollywood Ten, those people blacklisted by Hollywood in the days after World War II during the McCarthy witch hunts. After a spell in prison, like many others in that situation, he left for Mexico and wrote screenplays under pseudonyms until the sixties, when the blacklist was broken. He had come under fire from the House Un-American Activities Committee for a longstanding commitment to free speech, to trades unions rights and for membership of the US Communist Party, and so, unsurprisingly, Johnny Got His Gun is as much polemic as pacific:

"He was a dead man with a mind that could still think... He could tell them mister there's nothing worth dying for I know because I'm dead. There's no word worth your life. I would rather work in a coal mine deep under the earth and never see sunlight and eat crusts and water and work twenty hours a day. I would rather do that than be dead. I would trade democracy for life. I would trade independence and honor and freedom and decency for life. I will give you all these things and you give me the power to walk and see and hear and breathe the air and taste my food. You take the words. Give me back my life."

I think I'm what you'd call a doubting pacifist. I never thought Michael Foot looked silly in his duffle coat, I thought the Greenham Common women were wonderful. I look around me today and don't see enough people speaking for peace. I'd like to make Johnny Got His Gun required, daily, breakfast time reading for all world leaders, in particular George Wendy Bush. And then hindsight shows me doubt, and I wonder if appeasement can really always be the answer, and I know survivors of genocides across the world would tell me no, it can't, and at those moments it seems to me they are right. But Trumbo's Joe is also not so far from the truth when he speaks up for the little people, the people who just want to live and love and find food, warmth and shelter. Freedom, justice, honour: these things mean nothing to the dead, do they?

I found Johnny Got His Gun horrific. I found it sad. I found it frightening. War is horrific. War is sad. War is frightening. It also made me think. It is important when presented with a choice, especially with a choice between supporting the making of war or the making of peace, that we are aware of the full implication of that choice and the effect that it has not only on world politics but on individual people. I think you should read Johnny Got His Gun for that reason. It will make you think too. You may be a pacifist yourself, you may not. It may change your mind, it may not. But you'll be aware of another, more personal, implication of the choice you are making and that is an important thing. It is hard to read, it hurts to read it. But isn't that as it should be? War is hard. War hurts. Dalton Trumbo himself found his book gave different answers to his questions in each of three conflicts, in both world wars and in Vietnam. He is right to ask us to stop and question the choices we are making today until we are sure they are the right ones.

I don't have any answers for you though, I'm sorry.

If you enjoyed this book you might also enjoy Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

Booklists.jpg Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo is in the Top Ten War Novels.

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Kerry King said:

Also then, compulsive reading for those who think they are not at war just because they are not the ones wearing fatigues, a helmet and kevlar body armour every day with a semi-automatic weapon in their hands.

This is next on my must-read list. That's a list I keep of books that ought to be read for the sake of humanity and whether I really want to or not.

Jill replied:

I'm honestly not sure I'd have the courage to read it again. I think everyone should read it once though.