We all love technology, right? It lets you do things like go on Shmoop. What's not to love?
Well, okay: there totally are things not to love about technology, and maybe that's why a lot of us have a love-hate relationship with it. Technology's kind of a double-edged sword. Take nuclear energy, for instance: you can use it as a source a power, but you can also use it as a source of destruction. It all depends on what you want to do with it—and how well you understand the consequences of using it.
We're gonna go ahead and call technology a motif in Johnny Got His Gun. It's not really a symbol for anything; it's more of a presence that serves different purposes in different ways. The issue of technology is a tough one to crack in this novel, as things that initially seem positive get harnessed for nefarious purposes. Let's take a look at a few examples:
- The telephone. The entire novel begins with the telephone ringing, which is Joe's first indication that he has been wounded in the war and made deaf. At the same time, we're treated to the story of Joe's parents' courtship over some of the first telephone lines.
- The airplane. When the aviator Lincoln Beachey comes to town, the school superintendent gives a long speech about how airplanes are "ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding" (2.11). We the readers are supposed to pick up on the irony of this statement, because airplanes were one of the deadliest instruments of destruction during World War I.
- Trains. Trains are hardly a new technology at this point, but still, they do carry loads of young men away from their homes to their deaths at the front. Headed by a screaming Christ, these trains become symbols of death.
- Medicine. Let's not forget the fact that Joe's very survival is something of a medical technological triumph: "The war had been a wonderful thing for the doctors and he was the lucky guy who had profited by everything they learned" (7.14). Do you smell that irony? We certainly do: medical technology has made it possible for doctors to keep Joe alive, but, depending on how you look it, what they've really done is trap Joe somewhere between life and death. Joe actually thinks this is worse than dying outright.
- Morse code. Even the Morse code that Joe resorts to tapping out (again, not a new technology for 1918) gives the sense of an impersonal, technological mechanization. Also, in the end, Joe's communication via Morse code goes nowhere: nobody listens to him, and he's stuck just where he was, probably forever. It looks like Morse code is only an effective way to communicate if you're in war or commerce.
With the exception of the telephone, one of the things that these technologies have in common is that they seem to erase individuality: an airplane dropping bombs or shooting bullets from the sky doesn't think about any one person in particular but just sees the enemy as a distant, undistinguishable mass; trains don't discriminate either, but carry off people by the cartloads; medicine doesn't seem to see Joe as a person at all, but just as a case of "amputate this, amputate that"; and Morse code reduces language to a series of blips, most of them calling for help (think about how Joe's tapping compares to the new nurse actually tracing out the letters of "MERRY CHRISTMAS" on his chest).
Now, we aren't ones to hate on technology, given how we're a website and all, but we've got to admit that it doesn't come out looking that great in this novel. It's not that Dalton Trumbo hates everything made out of metal (after all, who doesn't love telephones?): it's how technology is used in Johnny Got His Gun that seems to be the problem. The real question is whether or not its misuse is inevitable.
Does technology have to be dehumanizing? Does war make technology more dehumanizing, or does the dehumanizing potential of technology help create a mindset that leads to war (if you start to see people as not quite people, then it's easier to kill them)? Or both? These are some of the big questions Trumbo raises. There aren't any easy answers here, but there's a lot of food for thought.