Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Principles

By Dalton Trumbo


What do you care about making the world safe for democracy? All you wanted to do Joe was to live. (2.22)

"Making the world safe for democracy" is a pretty huge task, but it is actually one of the reasons Woodrow Wilson gave when the U.S. entered World War I. The question is, what does such a monumental task have to do with good ol' Joe? For that matter, what (Joe might ask) does it have to do with World War I?

Somebody said let's go out and fight for liberty and so they went and got killed without ever once thinking about liberty. And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose idea of liberty? (10.2)

"Liberty" has been a rallying cry for many countries over the past 300 years, but as Joe points out, it's become so entrenched that people don't really stop to think about what exactly it means in a given situation. It's not clear whether the questions Joe is asking in this passage are rhetorical (meaning they can't be answered), or whether he expects them to have hard, definitive answers.

What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's just a word like house or table or any other word […] But a guy says come on let's fight for liberty and he can't show you liberty. (10.3)

Liberty is what you might call an abstract concept: it's not something you can ever physically point to or grasp; it's just an idea. But to Joe, that indicates that it's even weaker than something as mundane as a table, which is at least solid. It isn't necessarily that Joe wants liberty to be a simple, solid thing you can point to; but if people are going to fight and die for it, it should be something (he thinks) that at least be logically explained and applied to a specific situation.

[...] I've already decided that I like the liberty I've got right here the liberty to walk and see and hear and talk and eat and sleep with my girl. I think I like that liberty a lot better than fighting for a lot of things we won't get and ending up without any liberty at all. (10.4)

While Joe says earlier that you can't to point to something like liberty, he actually seems to be trying to define it here. Ironically, his version of liberty seems almost to cancel out the option of going to fight for it.

Please all you guys who want to fight to preserve our honor let us know what the hell honor is. (10.7)

No, it's not that Joe literally doesn't know what honor is; he's asking what about honor makes it necessary to go out and fight in order to preserve it. Who decided that fighting is honorable and not fighting is dishonorable?

For Christ sake give us things to fight for we can see and feel and pin down and understand. No more highfalutin words that mean nothing like native land. Motherland fatherland homeland native land. It's all the same. (10.9)

You might think that the idea of a native land would be something you could point to or pin down in the literal sense, but here it seems that it's just as much as slippery term as any other. It's also interesting that Joe says that "native land" is a "highfalutin" word, which means that it's overblown and pretentious. But this is where it gets tricky: is there a difference between the idea of your native land, and your literal native land? In other words, maybe Joe's idea is that your real native land is just the specific place—like a town, or a house—where you feel at home, whereas "native land" as a political idea is just another empty word that people use to manipulate each other.

You keep your ideals just so long as they don't cost me my life. And they say but surely life isn't as important as principle. Then you say oh no? Maybe not yours but mine is. What the hell is principle? Name it and you can have it. (10.13)

Sure, it's easy to say that there are principles worth dying for, right? Joe is challenging us to imagine what that kind of sacrifice would actually entail when the gun is pointed at us.

You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else's life. (10.14)

In the same vein as the last quote, we can always talk about dying for our country or dying for liberty, but what does that mean when the living are the ones saying it, and the dead are the ones who actually did it? This idea is important in light of what Joe says later about speaking for the dead (see 10.18).

So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?

[…] They died moaning and sighing for life. (10.19-21)

We're going to be bold and suggest that this quote really gets to the heart of the book, or at least that it pretty succinctly sums up one of the novel's main points. On the one hand, there is this idea of war as a glorious and noble act of sacrifice; on the other hand, it is unnecessary suffering and death where there could have been life. Joe's point is that when it comes down to it, many soldiers will have found themselves misled about what they were fighting for.

If you tell us to make the world safe for democracy we will take you seriously and by god and by Christ we will make it so. (20.32)

Joe is taking the rhetoric to task and saying that true democracy is being able to live instead of being sent off to fight—but then he goes on to say that the real enemy worth fighting is the immediate one trying to kill you in a different way. Who's the real enemy? The people trying to send you to war.

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