Updated on May 19, 2015
26. ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ by Dalton Trumbo
When I started Johnny Got His Gun, I didn’t really have any idea what I was about to read. I saw it mentioned online, alongside words like ‘amazing’, ‘harrowing’ and ‘life-changing’, so I bought it on Kindle and deliberately avoided reading any blurbs or reviews about it. If you would like to read this book without any idea of what is contained inside, stop reading now, because I’m about to spoil things.
Johnny is about a man called Joe, an American soldier serving in World War I. The beginning of the book is hazy and disconnected because, as we later find out, Joe is moving in and out of consciousness. When he finally properly wakes up, he discovers (piece by piece) that he has lost all of his limbs and his entire face in an explosion in a trench. Robbed of his ability to talk, see, hear, smell, taste and gesture, he begins to panic and descends into fearful delusions: How can he tell when he is awake? What time of day it is? What country he is in? We are privy only to Joe’s thoughts throughout this book; effectively we are trapped in his body with him. He is a fully sentient person, filled with memories of family and love and sadness, who is completely unable to escape the boundaries of his own mind. The situation is just unbearable.
As time passes, Joe works out a method to count the days, to determine that he is awake and, eventually, a way to communicate. When he eventually does talk to a doctor (through tapping out Morse Code with his head), the doctor taps in reply, “What do you want?” For me, that was the point at which real despair took over: what can a man in this situation possibly want? How can someone so young face all the interminable years ahead of him? For Joe, life has become a crippling curse.
The predominant mood in this novel is anger. Johnny was published in 1938 and it was Trumbo’s aggressively anti-war work of art. Joe expresses this rage with lasting eloquence. The sentiment that really stays with you is that sacrificing yourself for your country is not noble. Living is noble, waking up each morning and seeing the sunrise and talking to your family – these things are honourable. But dying for a cause, or being irreversibly wounded for ideas help by people who never get near the fighting, is meaningless. The enduring message of Johnny is, for God’s sake, LIVE.
If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?