Johnny Got His Gun
Picture this: Bombs. Drums and horses. Mustard gas. Trenches filled with rotting bodies.
Sound familiar? Yep, it's World War I, the war that inspired Dalton Trumbo to write the pacifist novel Johnny Got His Gun, first published in 1939.
Don't think that just because this stuff happened a long time ago it isn't still relevant: Johnny Got His Gun was the anti-war novel for the Vietnam War, and it continued to be part of the protest movements for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This novel may be a oldie, but something about it keeps drawing people back.
The story follows a single American soldier, Joe Bonham, who has been wounded beyond what seems possible (a lot of things that people thought were impossible happened during World War I). As he lies completely immobile and helpless in his hospital bed, he thinks back on his life and the actions that led him to his present state.
We're not gonna lie: it's pretty bleak. But Trumbo isn't just trying to scare you: he wants you to think about the often unseen, often ignored, but very big costs of war. Joe's painful personal story challenges the kinds of ideas people had about war in 1914: it stops seeming quite so grand and heroic when you see the real cost to individual people.
As if the story weren't compelling enough on its own, Johnny Got His Gun has an interesting publication history as well. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the book was suppressed, and eventually it went out of print. Trumbo was actually in favor of keeping the book out of print until after the end of the Korean War.
Johnny Got His Gun returned to print, though, and by the time the Vietnam War rolled around in the 1960s, it had become a pretty big component of the anti-war movement. So what makes this book so powerful? Why does it get such different reactions at different times (and during different wars)? Why did Trumbo write a book describing the horrors of World War I but agree to the book's suppression during World War II and the Korean War?
Read on and find out, Shmoopers. This one's gonna get real.
Why Should I Care?
Well, there's the obvious reason: wars didn't stop after World War I. We've still got 'em, and we're still trying to figure 'em out.
For most of us these days, at least in the U.S., war isn't something we experience firsthand, even though it's still happening all over the world. The only war most of us experience is either at the movies or on TV. We know that war is going on somewhere—probably somewhere far away—and we probably know some of the political stuff causing it, but basically, our most immediate concerns are things like English homework and the finale of Breaking Bad.
Joe, the hero of Johnny Got His Gun, is like us. In fact, he's exactly like us: he's just a guy living his life. He's got parents, friends, and girlfriend drama. He doesn't really understand war, either; he only hears bits and pieces about it from those around him.
The difference between Joe and us is that Joe gets called to go to war, and he's made to give everything short of his soul for a cause that he only kinda sorta understands. Actually, that's an overstatement: he doesn't really understand it at all.
Kind of messed up, right?
Trumbo wants to show the harsh reality of war to those he thinks are orchestrating or encouraging war without fully understanding what it entails. He wants to show how war puts an end to what should be the regular experiences of a person's life: childhood, maturing, fighting with friends, falling in love. If these things were taken away from you, wouldn't you want to know why?
Does this make the novel anti-war? That's something you can debate. At the very least, though, Trumbo wants you to understand war and its horrors before you make decisions about it.