Billed as The Most Shocking Anti-War Novel Ever Written, Johnny Got His Gun absolutely fits the description. There are no pretenses about this horror story, only the cold hard questions about war. Why war? What is democracy, and liberty, and are the concepts really worth fighting for? To my knowledge there has never been a story written that offers such a graphic protagonist who is so horribly injured, and is kept alive knowing that he is the only person alive who knows this. The clarity he gains through his thoughts and eventually tapping, makes for the most provoking, thoughtful anti-war writing ever. Dalton Trumbo (author) was brave and wise beyond his time to publish this in 1939. It is a universal read for all wars, and the truth of the waste of war.
The story is hard to take because of the protagonist's injuries, youth, and the harsh realities of the war he was hurt in. Trumbo sharply describes the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual states of this devasted young soldier so clearly that putting the book down to take a breather is often necessary. It is so well- written that it is hard to read, because the reader is sucked in so deeply. It has taken me weeks to review it, and I figured if I finally write about it maybe it won't take up so much reflection in my thoughts. I don't suggest it for the feint of heart.
World War I is happening and a young American soldier (Joe Bonham) becomes an injured, nameless loss in a hospital, probably in England. His face has been blown off, he becomes limbless, and only has the sense of touch. That's it - no eyes, ears, nose, legs or arms - he is not easily classified, an anomaly.
As the horror of his physicality becomes clear to him, because he does have an active brain despite the constant drugs to keep him doped, he begins to flash back to his family, friends, and girlfriend before his enlistment to fight in the war. His regular, normal past contributes to his present growing bitterness as he substantiates his war views politically. His thoughts are still apropriate to the present 21st century concerning war. This is the beauty of his story: what keeps engaging the reader. He regrets joining in to fight a war that, he has concluded, wasn't his business.
The scene of his hospital room is kept alive by his imaginings. He thoroughly describes his main caretaker, the Old Day Nurse. She seems efficient and affectionate which pleases him. He describes her looks from the vibrations he feels from her walking in his room, and her touch on his skin when she is tending him. Eventually he feels new vibes and describes a younger, sympathetic New Day Nurse. He has now decided that he can tap his head to communicate. So he taps continually, he taps morse code. First he wants to be dead, then he wants to be placed in a glass box and shown about the country so people can see the true horror of war. The new day Nurse realizes he is communicating, and she gets help with his questions, as she has tapped on his chest, "What do you want?"
"He began to resent the question itself and the way they asked it and the ignorance that lay behind it. Who did they think they were and what did they think he wanted that they could give him?" (pg 220). These sentences begin a series of hard hitting truths about the soldier as a war trophy - at least this one as a live brain, dead body, kept alive human. His bravery to want his body to be used as an exhibit of warfare shouldn't be handled lightly. The outcome, and eventual answer to his quest is the ending of the story.
Throughout it all there is a bubbling, boiling rage at the politics of his situation from the whole war hoopla to the medical regulations accompanying casualties - fallen warriors. Great insight about the grim business of all that war is and is not feeds the reader throughout the relatively short, concise novel. One can't help to be flustered, ruffled, discomposed and distressed while reading this plot. Many themes abound, but the main one is the anti-war rhetoric.
This story is always going to be important as long as humans make war. We can tend to get apathetic because war is always going on somewhere on earth, and the constant referral to it via the instant available media can numb our sensibilities to the reality of all that war is and is not. I am very glad that I finally read this very famous novel. Sometime in the future I may even re-read it to stay human. Johnny Got His Gun is classic!