Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Warfare

By Dalton Trumbo

Warfare

The airplane said Mr. Hargraves was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding. Everyone would be friends said Mr. Hargraves when the airplane knitted the world together so that the people of the world understood each other. (2.11)

C'mon, planes can't be that evil, can they? The lesson here is to never underestimate the way a thing can be used; it's just a tool, and tools are neutral until use you them for good or evil purposes. Also, war can totally change the way we think about technology. Nazi death camps were so effective, for instance, because they used new technology to kill people more efficiently.

He lay there and thought oh Joe Joe this is no place for you. This was no war for you. This thing wasn't any of your business […] Because it wasn't your fight Joe. You never really knew what the fight was all about. (2.22)

Too bad someone didn't tell Joe any of this earlier. Joe, like just about everyone else, got caught up in the idea of war (war was glorified way more in 1914 than it is today) instead of weighing the necessity of it. World War I in particular is a war that is difficult to justify. What was it all about, again? Anyone?

This is war and war is hell and what the hell and so to hell with it. (3.11)

Nice wordplay, Joe. Behind it is the idea that we often tend to cope with the overwhelming horrors of war by brushing the whole thing off as a nasty business, in the process losing track of the specific horrors real individuals face—and in many cases have to continue facing for the rest of their lives. It's a whole lot easier to rattle off impersonal statistics than it is to consider the suffering of every individual, right? Getting us to remember that those wartime statistics are individuals is one of the main goals of Johnny Got His Gun.

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)

Irony, folks. Yeah, it's great that these doctors can keep Joe alive, but what destroyed him in the first place? Are the doctors actually doing Joe a favor by keeping him alive? Joe isn't so sure.

But when a guy comes along and says here come with me and risk your life and maybe die or be crippled why then you've got no rights. You haven't even the right to say yes or no or I'll think it over. There are plenty of laws to protect guys' money even in war time but there's nothing on the books says a man's life's his own. (10.2)

Joe's talking about conscription here, which is another word for the draft. It's important to remember that conscription and war basically went hand-in-hand until the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. But unlike during Vietnam, practically nobody was writing protest songs about it during World War I.

Corporal Timlon got eight weeks hospital leave which was lucky for him because the whole Limey regiment was almost wiped out three weeks later. (12.27)

During World War I, it was considered kind of "lucky" to be moved away from the front because you were just wounded enough not to die. See the sexy and beautiful French movie A Very Long Engagement for more on this, and also if you want to cry for a few hours.

Three or four big guys famous guys who still had arms and legs and who could see and talk and smell and taste had come into his room and they had pinned a medal on him […] That was all they ever had time to do just run around putting medals on guys and feeling important and smug about it. (13.13)

Watch out, here comes one incarnation of the notorious Big Guys. They don't seem all that sinister—after all, they're giving Joe a medal—but take a second to compare these guys and Joe. The guy who gets the medal also gets his limbs blown off; the guys who don't get a medal to keep their limbs. Which would you rather have: a medal or your arms and legs and face?

We're all going to be killed that's why we're here. Christ he's already dead and the big Swede over there is going to catch flu and die in camp and you in the corner you're going to get blown so damned high nobody'll ever had a souvenir and me I'm going to get buried in a trench cave-in and smother now isn't that a hell of a way to die? (16.13)

Get ready for some not-so-fun facts: During World War I, the number of casualties (not including civilians) on both sides totaled around 10 million; roughly one-third of the casualties were due to disease; about 7.8 million people were taken prisoner or went missing in action and were presumed dead, which is probably what Joe's family assumed happened to him (source). So basically, even though there were a lot of different ways to go, the odds were stacked against you coming back. And keep in mind that the low number of U.S. casualties is due to the fact that the U.S. joined the war really late in the game.

People wouldn't learn much about anatomy from him but they would learn all there was to know about war. That would be a great thing to concentrate war in one stump of a body and to show it to people so they could see the difference between a war that's in newspaper headlines and liberty loan drives and a war that is fought out lonesomely in the mud somewhere a war between a man and a high explosive shell. (19.12)

What does the average civilian imagine war to be? Also, take a moment to notice that powerful image in the last line: "a war between a man and a high explosive shell." People fighting hand-to-hand or even with guns is one thing, but a man and a shell isn't really a battle at all, is it? It's about as unbalanced as you can get. We pity the lonesome guy who finds himself in that situation—and there were a lot of lonesome guys in that situation during World War I. It's another way in which World War I seems to represent a turning point when war and society start to become dehumanized.

He had seen the airplanes flying in the sky he had seen the skies of the future filled with them black with them and now he saw the horror beneath. He saw a world of lovers forever parted of dreams never consummated of plans that never turned into reality. He saw a world of dead fathers and crippled brothers and crazy screaming sons. (20.28)

World War I was supposed to be "the war to end all wars." Well, it didn't do a very good job of living up to that. Does war ever really end war? Or is that an oxymoronic statement? Keep in mind that one of the things World War I actually did do was set the stage for World War II (and Johnny Got His Gun, though it was written a year earlier, was published in September of 1939, literally two days after the start of World War II). How might we read Joe's words in light of what happens after World War I?

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