That would be a great thing to concentrate war in one stump of a body and show it to people so they could see the difference between a war that's in newspaper headlines and liberty loan drives and a war that is fought out lonesomely in the mud somewhere a war between a man and a high explosive shell.
Dalton Trumboprobably best-known as the scriptwriter for the film Spartacus (1960) who had to write others under pseudonyms because of the Hollywood blacklistwrote a little book in 1938 that was published the next year just two days after the start of World War II. Timing can be everything, but is often merely ironic.
A deeply pacifist novel about the horror of war in a time when "patriotism" was matter of course sounds like a recipe for either virulent notoriety (and condemnation) or instant marginalization and obscurity. On the other hand, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the book was not banned as a result of the war. It did go out of print during the war and he felt it need not be republished until after the war. It was also out of print during the Korean War (1950-1953) and he purchased the plates so they wouldn't be sold for scrap and "turned into munitions." Fortunately he made that purchase.
The story takes place entirely inside the head of "Johnny" (actually "Joe Bonham"). it is made up of memories and thoughts and feelings and the only sense left himtouch. There is nothing that isn't filtered through his brain, hidden away in the mass of flesh he has become. Joe fought in World War I. He fought there and, for all intents and purposes, died there. He is as close to dead as anyone can be and still think.
An explosion has either ripped off his limbs or they had to be removed because of it. It has also removed much of his heada hole scraped out beginning at where the upper orbit of his eyes would be, down past where his nose would be, his ears gone, the mouth and tongue and jaw that are missing, to his neck. He breathes through a tube and he's fed through a tube. An embodiment of the living dead.
And he doesn't even realize the extent of his injuries until a quarter of the way through the book. He comes to the realization that he cannot hear and smell and speak and see, he cannot get up and walk or even turn over and he never will. His hospital stay isn't temporary, those aren't bandages over his eyes. He cannot even thrash enough to rip the tubes from his body in order to die. A prisoner in his own body, a prison he didn't make.
This seems more than a little limiting, given the premise, but Trumbo intercuts slices of his past as memory along the way. What might seem almost as filler, humanizes him. Universalizes him. Joe begins to exist and matter to the reader not because of the horror that was visited upon him (which necessarily inspires some sympathetic reaction and concern) but because he has a past, he is a real human being from Shale, Coloradojust like someone we might have knownbefore he became a fleshy blob in a silent, black hole.
He is the everyman. Joe, Johnny. He is you or your neighbor or your son or brother. What makes these memories so poignant is not that they are special or remarkable in any real sense but because they are not. They are the simple, mundane pleasures and tragedies of a young man living at the time. Working, falling in love, losing that love, friendship. His father's garden, the animals they keptthey were not well-off (though not poor, either) but always provided for.
There's his mother reading the family "A Visit From St. Nicholas." He remembers losing his father's prized fishing rod (which he could not afford to replace) and then being forgiven. It was the last camping trip with him before he would grow up and spend time with his own friends. Those little moments that can be almost universally shared.
But each time, the memory ends and he is returned to the organic shell he has become, with nothing but his thoughts. A shell that was not born, but created by war. A war he was a part of like so many young men around the world, rushing off to defend lofty ideals and to "make the world safe for democracy."
It is Joe's ruminations on war that give the novel a stronger message than merely the tragic aspect of his injuries. It might be easy to "see" the victim, like some grotesque lump and accept the antiwar messagebut it's equally easy to dismiss it. Joe is no poet and the words and ideas that go through his head are simple, yet poignant and almost poetic, nonetheless. He speaks for anyone, the average citizen who is just as likely to be swept up into war as anyone elseprobably more likely.
Not only the words, themselves (and the ideas behind them), but the fact that he came about them not because he is a genius or a philosopher or a poet, but because he has been through the experience. He has died and he has had a luxury not normally afforded the dead: he can reflect on it.
He condemns those abstract reasons that are given as pretext, as justification to go to war. To fight strangers. To die far away from home. "High falutin words," he calls them. Those advertisements for war that stir up the blood and the spirit and make one teary-eyed and willing to kill for an ideal. But what of that ideal? What is it really? That is where he begins finding chinks in the armor or words. Liberty?
What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it's a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house and prove it. But a guy says come let's fight for liberty and he can't show you liberty. He can't prove the thing he's talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?
But those words sound so nice. Who is going to denigrate liberty? But its very abstract naturewhat makes it "high falutin"is part of why he finds problems with it. The word is used with no real context, no real depth of meaning. Not to say liberty has no meaning but when used to go to war, used to manipulate, incite, all that matters is some kind of "appropriate" emotional response to it. A response that is supposed to urge one to the "proper" feelings of patriotism (usually similarly ill-defined), god & country, proverbial apple pie cooling on a window sillthe stuff of Hollywood and parades and pulpits.
But not the stuff of reality. Not the reality of someone who believed and acted on those words and found himself trapped inside a body that doesn't function, kept alive by tubes, and visits by medical staff. The reality that goes from a generally abstract "willing to fight and die for" to "died for." When it happens, it no longer has that hollow ring of emotional truth. As Joe knows, those people who died didn't die thinking about the noble causes they were told they were fighting for but, rather, they died "crying in their minds like screaming babies," "yearning for the face of a friend...the voice of a mother a father a wife a child," wanting to see home one more time"They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live." And who better to know that than someone who "died," himself.
In the end, those words, kept disconnected from any reality cannot be the sole basis for human sacrifice. Because "when I swap my life for liberty I've got to know in advance what liberty is and whose idea of liberty and just how much of that liberty we're going to have." A human can reason and reason should be appealed to, not emotion, when something of this importance is discussed. Joe decides that if people realized the damage of such words, he wouldn't be in that bed and millions in the ground.
Not just liberty, later "democracy," "decency," "freedom," "honor," "womanhood," "Motherland fatherland homeland native land." The function is to make one willing to entertain the idea that the possibility of dying is less important than the sound and the emotional resonance those words have. But he has learned otherwise. One must go further (as those speaking the words are not going to stop), one must always ask "what is it?" "how much?" "and whose?"
He concludes that the main reason no one realizes that these words are the empty promises of advertisements for killing is because no one can say if these things are really worth dying for because
Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can't talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead
One who puts those words in the mouths of the slain cannot make that judgment"He only knows about living."
But who, then, speaks for the dead? Only someone who has been there. Joe. He knows. But it is the part of his damnation that he has no real way to tell the living what he knows. He is stuck with his thoughts, his attempts to create a universebesides "thinking," it is all he has left. He tries to measure time by counting (losing track many times). He tries to determine the passing of the days by the regular visits of nurses and the warmth of the sun through a window. He makes days and months and holidays inside his head.
Years pass. He thinks. And he seems not to (or is afraid to) consider that weakness of it all, the dependency on the fallibility of expectation. It may have been far less time than he supposes or even more. He no longer has the simple gift of being able to gauge the passage of time in all but the most rudimentary and feeble way. When not doing that, he creates the world in his head, he walks in the sunlight, he visits Paris, he imagines the farm. Trying to obtain and maintain a sliver of the reality that has been wrested from him and ripped away like lower face and his limbs.
He is like "Lazarus" (from one of his memories), the name given a dead German in No Man's Land, who lies out by the wire, rotting away. They are forced to bury him more than once. But the war disinters him, leaving him as a reminder of the madness of the war they are participating in. A reminder that no one seems able to comprehend. But nothing can rectify that Lazarus cannot speak. Neither can Joe. Without a way to communicate, the only recourse is total immersion into fantasy or prayers for death. Unless he discovers a way.
Using all his strength he begins beating a tattoo on the pillow with his head. Morse code. SOS. Tap, tap, tapping, over and over and over again. he completely loses his weak grasp on "time" to this new obsessionfinding a voice for one who has no tongue. Or lips or teeth or jaw.
Like Lazarus, no one seems to understand the message. But he gets rewarded for his death. He gets a medal. A congratulations for killing yourself for us. It infuriates him, the idea that people who didn't fight, people who sent others to die for them, would come and pin a medal on him after he was essentially erased from humanity "all they ever do is run around pinning medals on guys and feeling smug about it." Of course, as he thinks, they can "afford to...the dirty bastards." He silently demands to know how many generals died in the war. There's no answer and he can't do anything about it.
This isn't about overcoming tragedy or the courage to go on. Joe isn't a hero. He isn't triumphing over adversity, he does what he does because he has no choice. The choice was made for him when he was sent on his way to meet the shell "that has a number and the number is mine." Now he is one of the dead and must communicate what he knows to the living.
Finally someone apparently realizes he has something to "say." Then someone broaches the silence with a question. The dots and dashes of "what do you want?" What does he want? Well, there's the obvious. He wants eyes to see with, a nose to smell, a mouth "so he could eat and talk and laugh and taste and kiss," arms and legs so that "he could work and walk and be like a man a human being." Things that humans take for granted. To be let out so he could feel the fresh and free air on his skin, touch being his last connection to life. To be around people, not technicians, not doctors and nurse who have to attend him.
Then he changes his mind. Someone much more important. In a flurry of tapping, he speaks. He wants out, not for himself, not for the "dead-man-who-is-alive," the "live-man-who-is-dead," the one who "made the world safe for democracy," but for the living. For the sons who haven't gone to war, for the ones who get caught up in the "high falutin" words. He would be an examplea sideshow exhibit in a glass case a "look at me" for people, for men, women, children, teachers, farmers, clergy, politicians. A face of war. A stunted monument to the glories of dying a "noble death," after having "fought out lonesomely in the mud somewhere a war between a man and a high explosive shell."
He could be placed in congress and parliament and other voting political bodies so they have to reflect on him before decisions are made. And of course, he would be self-supporting financially because of all the people who would pay to see the freak, much like the "wild man of Borneo and the meat-eating girl from the Congo." Everyone will come to see this "something so terrible that if it were born to a mare or a heifer or a sow or a ewe you would kill it on the spot." And maybe they would learn.
Coming down from his frenzy of communication, he is again thrust into the darkness. He is simply answered with "what you ask is against regulations who are you...." He stops paying attention, everything becoming "blank hollow completely quiet." He is nothing but a burden, something to be hidden and forgotten about, a dirty little secret kept alive out of some sense of obligation and left with an eternity of "darkness desertion loneliness silence horror unending horror."
He begins tapping, perhaps one last time. Taps that slow as they dope him. As his fever dream state washes over him he sees himself as a vanguard of a new movement, a new order, the "future." Men who hold peace above anything else, who will not accept the words of "you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans."
But in the end, he fails. Even in his vision of peace, the taint of blood and the intrusion of violence cannot be extinguished. "We will use the guns you force upon us we will use them to defend our very lives." "Put guns into our hands and we will use them...we will have the slogans and we will have the hymns and we will have the guns and we will use them and we will live." He ends with "You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun."
The horror and violence and futility of war cannot be much better expressed than in order to achieve Joe's peace, he threatens with the gun.
(Source: Johnny Got His Gun 1939 Dalton Trumbo and the author's introduction)