1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 22: Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo

Introductions can sometimes prove to be a laborious precursor to a novel commencement. Often times I skipped the introduction, though sometimes if it is by the author, or a writer I know and respect, I make a point of reading it. In Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo wrote the introduction himself, some years later, and added an amendment some years after that, offering some historical perspective to the novel. Being aware of Trumbo’s own history (he was blacklisted in Hollywood due to ties with the communist party and his refusal to ‘name names’- he in fact almost had his name taken off of the Spartacus credits as screen writer and would likely had not seen his name on there at all if it hadn’t been for Kurt Douglas making a point of standing up for Trumbo), I was curious to read his comments. The amendment to the introduction was written on January 3rd, 1970, deep into the Vietnam war. He says “numbers have dehumanized us. Over our breakfast coffee we read of 40, 000 American dead in Vietnam. Instead of vomiting, we reach for the toast”. It is reminiscent of the scene in the film Rwanda in which the Jauquin Phoenix’s news man notes that even if he gets the word out about the tragedy going on in Rwanda, the people will simply think how sad the situation is before going onto finish their dinner. But Trumbo pushes the numbers further: 40, 000 dead = 3, 000 tons of bone and flesh, 124, 000 pounds of brain matter, 50, 000 gallons of blood, 1,840,000 years of life that will never be lived and 100, 000 children who will never be born”, the last of which Trumbo notes: “we can afford: there are too many starving children in the world already”. There is a brutal callousness in this introduction, but it is a noble and commendable honesty as well. It is the truth, and it is a truth that Trumbo had tried to communicate in his novel before the start of WWII, as he delved into a hypothetical worse-case scenario of a fictional American soldier from WWI.

Joe Bonham is a young man entering the prime of life. After suffering heart break, he finds love and work, and friends and all is whisked away as he is drafted to fight in WWI. Before his tour is over he is taken out by an artillery shell, his face is blown off, taking away his ears, and nose, and eyes a mouth, and is saved by modern medicine which allows him to breath and eat through tubes, but his injuries do not end there. All four limbs are also torn away and he is left a hunk of meat with no means of communication. In an attempt to keep track of time and occupy his mind, he uses what senses he has left, a patch of flesh exposed detects heat, feels sweat, his body feels vibrations, and he uses each of these to try and determine the change of the passing days. And while doing this he drifts in and out of dream states. His memories fall back to his life at home, the heart break, making love, falling in love, working with men whom he respected and admired, and living a life which, though perhaps unfulfilling, was still enjoyable, still one that saw no violence. He receives a medal whilst laying in bed, a hunk of meat, and he tries to imagine the military men, feeling pride in giving him a medal while he suffers, or the doctors feeling pride in their work on him while he wishes for death. And when he finally breaks through to his captors (for that is what they are to him), by nodding his head in Morse code, he finds his voice, what voice he has, has fallen on deaf ears that in turn subdue him with drugs and silence him, and in turn silence their own guilt.

The tone of the novel is not as terse as the introduction, but that does not make it any less potent. It is poetic at times, and from the start embraces traditional grammatical rules as applied to typical prose, but as the narrative unfolds, Trumbo soon drops much punctuations (quotation marks, and sometimes periods are left off), and employs a stream-of-consciousness style as his protagonist’s mind floats through his dreams and thoughts. There is a passage in which he employs narrative disjunction, juxtaposing a scene of Bonham in a bar before heading to the front lines with a narrative that follow the artillery shell that will steal away life as he knows it. The scene is a potent one, illustrating how even in out passive inaction serves as approval of war, a woman who works in a factory is the one who builds the shell, putting her, via the shell she has built, on the front line (offering an interesting feminist perspective that at once uplifts woman on a par with men, while at the same time implying their tacit participation holds them equally accountable), with the men, holding her as accountable as the men holding the guns. Holding the truck driver who delivers the shells accountable, and everybody along the way accountable. WWI called upon total participation, and therefore everybody was accountable. This simple piece of narrative disjunction and juxtaposition articulates this efficiently and eloquently. By the time Bonham finds a way to communicate, the prose jumps into a stark, terse, critique of war, almost like an essay which is a jump in the narrative tone Bonham has been given, but one that nevertheless fits well with the context of the book.

There is no uplifting ending, there is no ray of sunshine at the end, no glimmer of hope, just black despair, which perhaps was meant as a warning to those who were on the cusp of declaring a second world war. But WWII went on (perhaps with more justification than the WWI due to Germany’s aggressive war policies), but even afterward, even after two world wars, Korea, and then Vietnam, and then Iran/Iraq, and other wars still continued. Bonham was the everyman, the one who paid the price whilst the Masters Of War sat behind their desks, micromanaging wars and sending people they had never met to fight on behalf of words like democracy and freedom. Trumbo wanted Bonham to be an example of the life one might come to know should they fall prey hegemonic propaganda touting war as the only answer.

If you like this, try:

The Short-Times, by Gustav Hasford: A short, terse examination of the Vietnam War, its dark humour is a vast departure from Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, but the two author’s, though taking a different road, share the same destination.

Masters of War, by Bob Dylan. Since it’s a song, it won’t take up as much time as read a novel on the subject, but Dylan seems to speak along in the same vein as Trumbo’s Bonham once he starts in on anti-war speech via Morse Code. Here’s a link to a cover of the song, as performed by Pearl Jam (feel free to skip the Cher cover of the song, of it you like a train wreck, youtube it): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEPAx37GsU0&feature=related

 

 

Up next: Spotted Horses, by William Faulkner

Words I thought I’d look up:

Brogue: A regional accent of Ireland.

Poilus: A warmly informal term for French infantrymen in WWI

Belleau Wood: Reference to the Battle of Belleau Wood, which took place near the Marne River in France. The US took on nearly 10 000 casualties, nearly 1-5 of which died. There are no clear numbers on the German side, but 1600 Germans were taken captive, but since the US “won” the battle, I would assume the German losses are at least as high, though they may have simply been grossly outnumbered and just happened to kill a lot of Americans with far fewer soldiers.

Erector set: Legos for the mechanically inclined. This steel rods with holes, accompanied with nuts and bolts and used to build things.

Fourflusher: A person who is bluffing. From the term: four-flush, in reference to a poker hand that is one card short of being a flush, upon which a person will bluff his/her opponent.

 

54-40 or Fight: In reference to the Oregon Dispute (not the Canadian rock band, 54:40, who by the way, KICK ASS!!!). The American president wanted a certain piece of the land which the UK and US both had commercial ambition for, and the US was totally like: Well, if we don’t get this, then its time for another war with the Canada, and we all know how the last one turned out… oh wait, maybe we should fight with Canada: That’s right, the last war between the two was the War of 1812, in which we burned the white house down! Word! The only victory the Yankees had to sing about was the Battle of New Orleans, which took place AFTER the war when some dumb-ass Yankee douche bags, who didn’t know the war was over, launched an attack on some UK service men who were unprepared for battle since they were under the impression that the war was over. Anyways, yeah, 54:40 or fight is just another example of the gung ho American attitude that indulges in the ‘right is might’ mentality and the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ attitude. Don’t the Americans know yet, wars aren’t won, they just end! Except for the War of 1812, which Canada won! Woooo! Whooooo!

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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