Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Manipulation and Propaganda

By Dalton Trumbo

Manipulation and Propaganda

But the entry of Roumania into the war occurred on the same day the Los Angeles newspapers carried a story of two young Canadian soldiers who had been crucified by the Germans in full view of their comrades across Nomansland. That made the Germans nothing better than animals and naturally you got interested and wanted Germany to get the tar kicked out of her. (2.21)

Joe is pointing out that a lot of people wanted to get up and kick Germany's butt not because they understood what the war was about, and not because they came up with well-reasoned rationale for going to war, but because they were scandalized by one particular story of an atrocity. It's not that people shouldn't have been horrified by that story—it's a terrible story—but is going to war the logical response to reading this story? What other responses might people have?

"And their lives if necessary that democracy may not perish from the face of the earth."

It's a long way to Tipperary it's a long way to go

"Don't get scared Kareen. It's all right."

"As that great patriot Patrick Henry said"

Johnny get your gun get your gun get your gun

"As that great patriot George Washington said"

"Goodbye mother goodbye Catherine goodbye Elizabeth." (3.39)

We're being bombarded with all kinds of pro-war rhetoric here. It's almost a sensory overload (which is ironic considering how Joe is going to lose his senses in the war): there's no escape from all this rhetoric, and there aren't any dissenting voices anywhere in the mix. It's also worth noticing how all the rallying noise is almost drowning out Joe's goodbyes to his loved ones, as if these personal relationships have ceased to matter.

Tell us how much better a decent dead man feels than an indecent live one. Make a comparison there in facts like houses and tables. Make it in words we can understand. (10.8)

Joe's reacting to the way propaganda uses vague language and concepts ("liberty" and "freedom," for example), which can mean so many things that they're basically meaningless. Joe is saying that if the big guys want people like him to go to war for them, they should at least tell them specifically what they're fighting for. If the big guys just want money and power, they should tell the little guys that they're dying and getting maimed so that the big guys can make more money; they shouldn't use vague concepts like "liberty" to pull the wool over the little guys' eyes. That's what Joe means when he says that the big guy should use "words we can understand."

You're worth nothing dead except for speeches. Don't let them kid you any more. Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we've got to fight for liberty or whatever their word is there's always a word. (10.26)

If propaganda is the manipulation of speech and ideas, then the dead actually become complicit in the thing that lured them to their demise in the first place, and it becomes a vicious cycle: Joe's point is that once you die in a war, you become a statistic that politicians and others in power can use for whatever purpose they want. Also, what does it mean when Joe suggests that the world "liberty" could be replaced with another? Is liberty just a pretext? Does it mean anything to those in power?

America expects every man to do his duty France expects every man to do his duty England expects every man to do his duty every doughboy and tommy and poilu and what the hell did they call the Italians? anyhow they're expected to do their duty too. (14.27)

Here, the language of propaganda is so flimsy that you can pretty much replace one country with any other country, and it won't change the meaning at all. What is this "duty" people are supposed do? Why are they supposed to do it? Who are they doing it for?

He would show himself to the little guys and to their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and wives and sweethearts and grandmothers and grandfathers and he would have a sign over himself and the sign would say here is war and he would concentrate the whole war into such a small piece of meat and bone and hair that they would never forget it was long as they lived. (19.12)

Remember how earlier in the novel, Joe complained that liberty was just a word you couldn't even point to? It's like he's trying to do the reverse here by making the notion of war into something concrete: his messed-up body. His body shows what the war costs in terms of individual lives: Johnny Got His Gun tries to make us see past statistics and understand the importance of each individual life.

Have a war and then prices go up and wages go up and everybody makes a hell of a lot of money. (19.18)

Okay, so remember how Joe was criticizing capitalism for coming between him and his dad in the chapter with the fishing rod? Same sort of thing happening here. Joe is trying to point out that some people are so wrapped up in immediate financial gains that they hardly consider that these personal gains at a price, and it's people like Joe who pay it.

You'll have a chance to die for your country. And you may not die you may come back like this. Not everybody dies little kiddies. (19.20)

The idea that it's great to die for your country has been a trope since at least the time of the Romans, who even had a saying for it: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. But by the time we get to the 20th century, things have become a little different (take a look at this poem from World War I riffing on that Latin phrase if you don't believe us). So what if kids in 1914 were shown Joe's understanding of war instead of the gung-ho one they most likely were shown? Do you think Joe himself would have been so keen to go to war if he had any idea he might end up trapped in a shell of a body? Would he have thought about war differently?

Then let them speak of trade policies and embargoes and new colonies and old grudges. Let them debate the menace of the yellow race and the white man's burden and the course of empire and why should we take all this crap off Germany or whoever the next Germany is […]
But before they vote on them before they give the order for all the little guys to start killing each other let the main guy rap his gavel on my case and point down at me and say here gentlemen is the only issue before this house and that is are you for this thing here or are you against it. (19.25-26)

War can be thought about in terms of a larger picture (like its global impact) and in terms of an individual picture. It seems like the big guys only think about the global impact without considering the individuals who ultimately suffer as a result of their decisions. Is this a conscious decision on their part? Do you think the people in power would act differently if they knew what was happening to people Joe? Do you think the guy who puts that medal on Joe's chest really cares about Joe? Or do you think he'll just forget him once the little ceremony is over? Will anything change?

He was the future he was a perfect picture of the future and they were afraid to let anyone see what the future was like. (20.30)

This is the other side of propaganda: as well as showing everybody things that will compel them to support you, you censor what will make them question you. So by the end of the novel, Joe has had the experience of both. Lucky him.

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