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When I first started reading Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, I thought it would be more direct in its description of World War I. However, the entire novel takes place in one American soldier’s hospital bed. His name is Joe. He no arms, legs, or face, and he is deaf. Rendered this way after an explosive shell hit him, he has no way to communicate with the world.
Joe dreams throughout the novel, mostly about his memories, and because of this, a great deal of the book is disjointed and contains a dreamlike quality. Through his dreams, I learned about Joe’s life before the war. I learned he lost his father fairly young, and about his boyhood romances. Joe worked at the railroad, and at a bakery. Before he left for the war, he had a girlfriend named Kareen who I believe he wanted to marry.
When Joe is awake, he at first is unaware of his injuries. He realizes he is deaf, but he goes through several stages of denial and acceptance for his physical features. He thinks his face is only swathed in bandages, not gone. He thinks the doctors are injecting drugs into the heel of his hand, not the stub that was his arm. Only when Joe realizes he’s missing his arms and legs and face, does he realize the full extent of his situation.
Joe doesn’t even know where he is, though he speculates that he could be in England, France, or possibly America. Joe knows that if his arms and legs didn’t make it through the shell blast that nearly killed him, his dog tags certainly didn’t. He knows he’ll never see his sister or mother, or Kareen, his girlfriend, again. He’ll never even know where he is.
Joe learns to tell time by how often the nurses come. He first figures out when dawn is by the warming of the sun’s rays on his skin. He then keeps count of how often the day and night nurses come between two dawns. When Joe finally gets it right (it takes several tries) he feels as though he’s regained some sort of connection with the rest of the world.
After five years, Joe is given a medal of honor for his efforts and losses in the war.
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Joe continues the try to communicate. The attempts all end with drugs until one day, a new nurse comes. She traces ‘Merry Christmas’ on his chest. He understands that this new nurse is tending him for a limited amount of time, and it may be his only chance to get his message through. After a series of trial and error, the nurse comprehends what he is doing, and gets a doctor. The doctor, using Morse Code, taps ‘What do you want?’ on Joe’s forehead. Joe doesn’t know what he wants at first, but then he decides. ‘Let me out,’ he says, so all the world can see what war has done to me. The doctor refuses though.
Throughout the book, Joe struggles with his loss. He also blames the men who did this to him, the ‘masters of men’. They are the men who plan these wars and then send young soldiers like Joe to fight them and ‘point the gun’. He is justifiably angry at these men who would send such naïve boys into war. ‘Fight for freedom’, they say. “Fight for democracy’. Joe does not want to fight for a word. He would rather have his face.
Not much of the war is discussed through Joe in the novel. It was almost as if he has blocked out any memories of the war. The novel showed me how easy it is for soldiers to become disillusioned with the idea of war. It’s easy to believe you can fight for a word when you’re so far away from the fighting. It’s easy to be noble and patriotic. But when you’re actually there, inside the belly of the war, staring at the awful gaping jaws of death every ten seconds, you aren’t fighting for democracy or freedom anymore. You’re fighting for your life.
This novel didn’t tell me much about war itself, but it did show me the aftermath of war through the eyes of one soldier. Society always hears about the brave young men who come home from battle, or the brave young men who died for their country, but rarely do we hear about the brave young men who lost their lives, though they didn’t die. Although not directly thought by Joe, I can’t help but wonder how many more soldiers like Joe there were after the war was over. How many other soldiers are effectively missing in action?
Not only did I get to learn about Joe’s emotional and physical pain firsthand, I got to learn about his past life, before the war, which is about 1896-1914. I get to learn through Joe’s own eyes what working on a section gang is like. Railroad work is extremely difficult, and is aptly described through Joe. He and his friend Howie quit after working for only one day. Joe subconsciously realizes how incredibly difficult it must be for the men who have no choice about quitting. The Mexicans who work on that railroad don’t even know how hard their life is.
One remarkably different thing about Joe’s life is that when he was a kid, his family not only grew their own vegetables, they own a cow and chickens and made their own cream, butter, jelly, and jam. They gathered their own chicken eggs. Joe’s family wasn’t a family of farmers either; they actually lived in the city. This life seems so different from life today.
On the subject of girls, little has changed over the years. Joe checks them out with his friends, and then finally gets one. Throughout the book several are named. Joe is even betrayed by his best friend Bill for a girlfriend. When Joe goes to war, his girlfriend Kareen tries to stop him. Girls always surround Joe. Even when he is faceless, there always seems to be a nurse around him. In this way women play a pivotal role in the book.
It is obviously apparent that Trumbo is viciously against war through his novel. He aptly shows this through the pain and suffering one soldier endures for the rest of his life. Although Trumbo was never in a war himself, Joe’s civilian experiences are also first-hand experiences for the author. For instance, both Joe and Trumbo worked in a bakery when they were younger, and both lived a civilian life with a family, friends, and girlfriends. Trumbo’s major source is secondary though. He was inspired to write the novel when he read a newspaper article about a horribly disfigured British officer from World War I. Though he has no first hand experience with war, he captures the essence of it admirably. And also even though the novel is fictitious, with no bibliography or works cited, Trumbo most likely did a great deal of research on the topic before writing.
Despite the fact that Johnny Got His Gun is strongly colored by Trumbo’s own intense anti-war sentiments, I feel it’s a good cautionary tale. So many young men and women, especially in these days, yearn for war and hope the ‘bad guys’ die; they often forget that just as often one of their numbers may die. After reading this book, I realize that war is not a glory; it’s not large battles and wondrous fights with our country emerging victorious. War is a very destructive and powerful force… War is a necessary evil to me, where many lose their life, and few come home in fame.