Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Principles

By Dalton Trumbo


So, why get your gun and go over there in the first place?

One of the big questions Johnny Got His Gun asks is why people feel like war is an obligation. While Joe doesn't necessarily go the way of John Lennon, he does come to the conclusion that war tends to be automatically associated with words that are thrown around without anyone stopping to think about what they might actually mean. What's honor? What's liberty?

Joe's arguments may seem pretty straightforward, but not many people (especially in 1914) would think to question concepts like honor or liberty; people just took them for granted. Now, it's not that Joe is saying honor and liberty don't exist, or that they're not important. He just wants people think about what they actually mean, and what they actually require from people.

Is it honorable to fight a war? Does fighting a war ensure liberty? Those are the kinds of questions Joe wants people to ask.

Questions About Principles

  1. What is the difference between fighting for an immediate cause and fighting for a word (see Joe's discussion of this in 10.10-11)?
  2. Is Joe correct in saying that liberty is not something you can point to?Ā 
  3. When Joe asks, "And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose idea of liberty?" (10.3), what do you think he's getting at?
  4. Are there aspects of principles like honor and liberty that Joe isn't considering? Is he simplifying the issues? Or is he revealing an inherent contradiction in the way people think about abstract principles like these?

Chew on This

For Joe, principles are not inherently bad, but they can be bad when they are used broadly and if people are not asked to think critically about them.

Joe's argument against principles is effective precisely because he breaks down the rationale into measurable parameters.

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