Novel November

Johnny Got His Gun

by Dalton Trumbo


Reading Review by Michael Channing

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

This is my favorite book. Reading it every time is an amazing experience, but the first read is a life-changing event. Maybe it helps that I'm in line with the book's politics, which are staunchly anti-war. Trumbo shoves the blackest atrocities of war right in your face and forces you to confront the consequences of humanity's favorite pastime. The protagonist, Joe, is caught in the blast of an artillery shell. We comes to and realizes he's not dead, he slowly figures out that he's in a hospital bed and that his arms, legs, and face have been blown off. He's a chunk of meat kept alive by machines and medicine. There's no way for his doctors or nurses to identify who he is and no way for them to know that he's fully conscience and mentally active. He has memories, feelings, thoughts, dreams and aspirations, but no way to communicate them to anyone. He's trapped in his own body. However, the officers in charge of keeping this novelty pulsing and breathing are proud of what their science has accomplished. Joe is a spectacle, a testament to the miracles of modern medicine. Just as Joe is physically blind, the military is figuratively blind to the suffering they've inflicted on him. So yeah, it's an anti-war book. But it's more than that. It's a pro-life book.

Not pro-life in the way we think of it now. More like carpe diem. But even that isn't quite right. This novel isn't about seizing the day, it's about experiencing the day. Having lost so much of himself, his past life completely irretrievable, Joe focuses all his thoughts and one remaining sense on fully capturing every moment in which he exists. In my absolute favorite passage of prose, Joe begins to separate day from night. He realizes the small patch of skin on his neck is exposed to open air (the rest is either under a sheet or covered by a breathing mask). He feels for the dawn, straining to sense the change in temperature as the sun rises and shines through a window onto his bed. Heat glides gently across his neck, and he experiences more with a few inches of skin than I have with all five senses. It's a breath-taking passage, an utterly perfect piece of writing. It makes me weep every time I read it.

Now with day and night under control, he starts counting days, ticking them off one by one on an imaginary chalkboard in his mind. He wants to be normal. As normal as he can be anyway. His memories and fantasies often tangle, and he's sometimes unsure if he's awake or dreaming. But he strives to keep aware of his surroundings. He thinks he figures out he seasons, though that's hard to do in a controlled environment. Then one day a newly-hired nurse—he can differentiate who is attending him by her footsteps and how she handles his cleaning—traces a pattern on his stomach. Over and over, repeating until finally he realizes she is tracing out the letter M. He bangs his head aggressively on his pillow to let her know he understands. Finally, after at least a year of isolation, someone is reaching out to communicate with him. Someone sees him as a person and not just a lump of flesh that needs its tubes changed at set intervals. The nurse continues. Another letter, this time E. Then two R's. And a Y. She tells him, MERRY CHRISTMAS. He's back in the world. He knows what day it is, and another human being has established contact with him. It's glorious and moving.

Joe begins to pound his head in a pattern. In his former life, he learned Morse code from his father. Now he cries out in the only way he can to communicate, to maintain this tenuous bridge between his mental cell and the outside world. The nurse doesn't understand code, but she understands she needs to let someone know that the man they all thought of as dead and thoughtless is actually vitally alive and begging for conversation. Someone eventually arrives who understands Morse code, and Joe makes his plea to be useful to the world. He wants everyone to know his story. He can make a difference, even as crippled as he is. He will become a testament not to the glory of science but to the hell of war. Let everyone see me, he says. Let them throw up at the sight of me. Let children cry when they look upon me. Let every man know that when he picks up a rifle to go to war, he is lining up to become exactly like me.

It's a passionate appeal. It's where Trumbo lets his pacifist message shine. But since it comes from the mind of a character we've been with through so much loss, triumph, and pain, it rings true. Joe is not an unbelievable construct. Every war sends home men in states nearly as bad as his. Governments ask for your patriotism, but they take your limbs instead. Your mind, your life. They say, “Give me your sons,” and they grind them to sausage. Joe believes if everyone could witness the true cost of war, they might not be so eager to pay it.

The army, of course, says no.

I've given away a good bit of the novel, I realize, but this book has a hold on me. It sets up its premise slowly. The writing is beautiful and breathless. And Joe is more than a mouthpiece for the writer's politics. He's a character we're willing to invest our time and emotions in. But the politics are there, and this book does have an agenda. It just happens to be one I've always held as my own. When I found this book, I fell in love with it because it said what I've always wanted to say far more eloquently than I possibly could. I immediately wanted everyone to read it because I knew it would change minds and bring peace. Then I realized that dream was just as fragile as Joe's. I closed the book, closed my eyes, and pictured a world where people listened not to the politicians and warmongers who promised freedom and glory, but instead paid heed to the simple words of artists who knew that patriotism, honor, and country were ideas not worth dying for. They've never listened to us. Perhaps they never will.

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