If you were nineteen and bedridden for the rest of your life, what would you do? That's only the superficial question of Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo's modern classic about war and suffering. More importantly: what do you do when your mind is the only part of you that still works, and no one ever taught you how to think?
You'd teach yourself to think, of course, but behind every other thought would be a death-wish. Johnny is a casualty of World War I, one of the most pointless and needlessly destructive wars ever fought—and the first to be fought on a large scale entirely with modern mechanized weapons.
The boy (his experiences don't make him a man) had his face and limbs blown off by a shell, but he's still alive and destined to spend the rest of his existence in a veteran's hospital. He can't see, can't speak, can't move himself, can't taste food. He's kept alive to salve the conscience of the system that sent him to die in the first place.
He has a few memories, mostly sordid, that he hangs onto because they humanize him. He finds a way to communicate via Morse code by beating his head against his pillow. He rages against his situation. He succumbs to nihilism. He wonders what he's supposed to do now that he's essentially dead but can't shut off his brain.
So do we. Trumbo takes us so deeply into his living tomb of barely stable flesh that we get claustrophobic. The sexuality and profanity don't evoke anger or disgust so much as simple pity—what other language is there for Johnny to express his frustration and loss of what might have been?
People didn't write anti-war novels before the 20th century. Some of the reasons for this were less than laudable, but there was also a sense in the past that wars had to be fought to preserve the well-being of nations. But what drives modern wars? Ideology alone isn't enough to gain the support of those you conscript to do your killing.
There's surprisingly little about actual combat here. Johnny reminisces about his boyhood, a shady lady he knew in Paris, and his own angst in concrete terms, but he shoves the war to the far reaches of consciousness. Johnny Got His Gun is one of the most uncomfortable books you'll ever read, but its pathos and empathy for the living dead makes it one of the best.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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