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Johnny Got His Gun ()


San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West


The story of Dalton Trumbo & this pacifist classic is as entertaining as anything he ever wrote. After the Stalin-Hitler Nonaggression pact was signed, doctrinaire communists like Trumbo were ordered to oppose US entry into the war; the Nazis were suddenly allies of the Communists. So Trumbo penned this seemingly impassioned anti-war diatribe. However, as soon as Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Party members were commanded to advocate immediate American intervention, so with Trumbo's connivance the book disappeared from print. Meanwhile, isolationists praised the book and tried getting Trumbo to join their movement. He not only refused them, he also turned their names over to the FBI. Once the war ended, the FBI & Congress belatedly turned their attention to the domestic Communist menace and Trumbo ended up being a member of the Hollywood Ten, when he refused to name fellow Party members in a fit of ne found moral virginity. Additionally, with America once again fighting against Communists, this time in Southeast Asia, Trumbo suddenly rediscovered the value of his novel and it returned to print. One hardly expects elevated levels of morality from a Communist, but the cynicism displayed by Trumbo was truly breathtaking.

The book itself is the story of a young American soldier of WWI awakening in a hospital and gradually realizing that he's lost his arms, legs, face, eyes and hearing. Trapped within the shell of his body, he flashes back to earlier scenes in his life and ruminates on why he ever marched off to war in the first place. The entire novel's viewpoint can be summed up in this extended passage:
He thought here you are Joe Bonham lying like a side of beef all the rest of your life and for what? Somebody tapped you on the shoulder and said come along son we're going to war. So you went.

But why? In any other deal even like buying a car or running an errand you had the right to say what's there in it for me? Otherwise you'd be buying bad cars for too much money or running errands for fools and starving to death. It was a kind of duty you owed yourself that when anybody said come on son do this or do that you should stand up and say look mister why should I do this for who am I doing it and what am I going to get out of it in the end? 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.

Of course a lot of guys were ashamed. Somebody said let's go out and fight for liberty and so they went and got killed without ever once thinking about liberty. And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose idea of liberty? Were they fighting for the liberty of eating free ice cream cones all their lives or for the liberty of robbing anybody they pleased whenever they wanted to or what? You tell a man he can't rob and you take away some of his liberty. You've got to. What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it's a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let's fight for liberty and he can't show you liberty. He can't prove the thing he's talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?

No sir anybody who went out and got into the front line trenches to fight for liberty was a goddamn fool and the guy who got him there was a liar. Next time anybody came gabbling to him about liberty- what did he mean next time? There wasn't going to be any next time for him. But the hell with that. If there could be a next time and somebody said let's fight for liberty he would say mister my life is important. I'm not a fool and when I swap my life for liberty I've got to know in advance what liberty is and whose idea of liberty we're talking about and just how much of that liberty we're going to have. And what's more mister are you as much interested in liberty as you want me to be? And maybe too much liberty will be as bad as too little liberty and I think you're a goddamn fourflusher talking through your hat and I've already decided that I like the liberty I've got right here the liberty to walk and see and hear and talk and eat and sleep with my girt I think I like that liberty better than fighting for a lot of things we won't get and ending up without any liberty at all. Ending up dead and rotting before my life is even begun good or ending up like a side of beef. Thank you mister. You fight for liberty. Me I don't care for some.

Hell's fire guys had always been fighting for liberty. America fought a war for liberty in 1776. Lots of guys died. And in the end does America have any more liberty than Canada or Australia who didn't fight at all? Maybe so I'm not arguing I'm just asking. Can you look at a guy and say he's an American who fought for his liberty and anybody can see he's a very different guy from a Canadian who didn't? No by god you can't and that's that. So maybe a lot of guys with wives and kids died in 1776 when they didn't need to die at all. They're dead now anyway. Sure but that doesn't do any good. A guy can think of being dead a hundred years from now and he doesn't mind it. But to think of being dead tomorrow morning and to be dead forever to be nothing but dust and stink in the earth is that liberty?

They were always fighting for something the bastards and if anyone dared say the hell with fighting it's all the same each war is like the other and nobody gets any good out of it why they hollered coward. If they weren't fighting for liberty they were fighting for independence or democracy or freedom or decency or honor or their native land or something else that didn't mean anything. The war was to make the world safe for democracy for the little countries for everybody. If the war was over now then the world must be all safe for democracy. Was it? And what kind of democracy? And how much? And whose?

Then there was this freedom the little guys were always getting killed for. Was it freedom from another country? Freedom from work or disease or death? Freedom from your mother-in-law? Please mister give us a bill of sale on this freedom before we go out and get killed. Give us a bill of sale drawn up plainly so we know in advance what we're getting killed for and give us also a first mortgage on something as security so we can be sure after we've won your war that we've got the same kind of freedom we bargained for.

And take decency. Everybody said America was fighting a war for the triumph of decency. But whose idea of decency? And decency for who? Speak up and tell us what decency is. Tell us how much better a decent dead man feels that an indecent live one. Make a comparison there in facts like houses and tables. Make it in words we can understand. And don't talk about honor. The honor of a Chinese or an Englishman or an African negro or an American or a Mexican? Please all you guys who want to fight to preserve our honor let us know what the hell honor is. Is it American honor for the whole world we're fighting for? Maybe the world doesn't like it. Maybe the South Sea Islanders like their honor better.

For Christ sake give us things to fight for we can see and feel and pin down and understand. No more highfalutin words that mean nothing like native land. Motherland fatherland homeland native land. It's all the same. What the hell good to you is your native land after you're dead? Whose native land is it after you're dead? If you get killed fighting for your native land you've bought a pig in a poke. You've paid for something you'll never collect.

And when they couldn't hook the little guys into fighting for liberty or freedom or democracy or independence or decency or honor they tried the women. Look at the dirty Huns they would say look at them how they rape the beautiful French and Belgian girls. Somebody's got to stop all that raping. So come on little au' join the army and save the beautiful French and Belgian girls. So the little guy got bewildered and he signed up and in a little while a shell hit him and his life spattered out of him in red meat pulp and ho was dead. Dead for another word and all the fierce old bats of the D.A.R. get out and hurrah themselves hoarse over his grave because he died for womanhood.

Now it might be that a guy would risk getting killed if his women were being raped. But if he did why he was only striking a bargain. He was simply saying that according to the way he felt at the time the safety of his women was worth more than his own life. But there wasn't anything particularly noble or heroic about it. It was a straight deal his life for something he valued more. It was more or less like any other deal a man might make. But when you change your women to all the women in the world why you begin to defend women in the bulk. To do that you have to fight in the bulk. And by that time you're fighting for a word again.

When armies begin to move and flags wave and slogans pop up watch out little guy because it's somebody else's chestnuts in the fire not yours. It's words you're fighting for and you're not making an honest deal your life for something better. You're being noble and after you're killed the thing you traded your life for won't do you any good and chances are it won't do anybody else any good either.

Maybe that's a bad way to think. There are lots of idealists around who will say have we got so low that nothing is more precious than life? Surely there are ideals worth fighting for even dying for. If not then we are worse than the beasts of the field and have sunk into barbarity. Then you say that's all right let's be barbarous just so long as we don't have war. You keep your ideals just as long as they don't cost me my life. And they say but surely life isn't as important as principle. Then you say oh no? Maybe not yours but mine is. What the hell is principle? Name it and you can have it.

You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else's life. They're plenty loud and they talk all the time. You can find them in churches and schools and newspapers and legislatures and congress. That's their business. They sound wonderful. Death before dishonor. This ground sanctified by blood. These men who died so gloriously.

They shall not have died in vain. Our noble dead.

Hmmmm.

But what do the dead say?

Did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god I'm glad I'm dead because death is always better than dishonor? Did they say I'm glad I died to make the world safe for democracy] Did they say I like death better than losing liberty? Did any of them ever say it's good to think I got my guts blown out for the honor of my country? Did any of them ever say look at me I'm dead but I died for decency and that's better than being alive? Did any of them ever say here I am and I've been rotting for two years in a foreign grave but it's wonderful to die for your native land? Did any of them say hurray I died for womanhood and I'm happy see how I sing even though my mouth ~ choked with worms?

Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk a;bout are worth dying for or not. And the dead can't talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead. If a man says death before dishonor he is either a fool or a liar because he doesn't know what death is. He isn't able to judge. He only knows about living. He doesn't know anything about dying. If he is a fool and believes in death before dishonor let him go ahead and die. But all the little guys who are too busy to fight should be left alone. And all the guys who say death before dishonor is pure bull the important thing is life before death they should be left alone too. Because the guys who say life isn't worth living without some principle so important you're willing to die for it they are all nuts. And the guys who say you'll see there'll come a time you can't escape you're going to have to fight and die because it'll mean your very life why they are also nuts. They are talking like fools. They are saying that two and two make nothing. They are saying that a man will have to die in order to protect his life. If you agree to fight you agree to die. Now if you die to protect your life you aren't alive anyhow so how is there any sense in a thing like that? A man doesn't say I will starve myself to death to keep from starving. He doesn't say I will spend all my money in order to save my money. He doesn't say I will burn my house down in order to keep it from burning. Why then should he be willing to die for the privilege of living There ought to be at least as much common sense about living and dying as there is about going to the grocery store and buying a loaf of bread.

And all the guys who died all the five million or seven million or ten million who went out and died to make the world safe for democracy to make the world safe for words without meaning how did they feel about it just before they died? How did they feel as they watched their blood pump out into the mud? How did they feel when the gas hit their lungs and began eating them all away? How did they feel as they lay crazed in hospitals and looked death straight in the face and saw him come and take them? I! the thing they were fighting for was important enough to die for then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it in the last minutes of their lives. That stood to reason. Life is awfully important so if you've given it away you'd ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded it for. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?

You're goddamn right they didn't.

They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life. They knew what was important They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live.

He ought to know.

He was the nearest thing to a dead man on earth.

He was a dead man with a mind that could still think. He knew all the answers that the dead knew and couldn't think about. He could speak for the dead because he was one of them. He was the first of all the soldiers who had died since the beginning of time who still had a brain left to think with. Nobody could dispute with him. Nobody could prove him wrong. Because nobody knew but he.

He could tell all these high-talking murdering sonsofbitches who screamed for blood just how wrong they were. He could tell them mister there's nothing worth dying for I know because I'm dead.

There's no word worth your life. I would rather work in a coal mine deep under the earth and never see sunlight and eat crusts and water and work twenty hours a day. I would rather do that than be dead. I would trade democracy for life. I would trade independence and honor and freedom and decency for life. I will give you all these things and you give me the power to walk and see and hear and breathe the air and taste my food. You take the words. Give me back my life. I'm not asking for a happy life now. I'm not asking for a decent life or an honorable life or a free life. I'm beyond that. I'm dead so I'm simply asking for life. To live. To feel. To be something that moves over the ground and isn't dead. I know what death is and all you people who talk about dying for words don't even know what life is.

There's nothing noble about dying. Not even if you die for honor. Not even if you die the greatest hero the world ever saw. Not even if you're so great your name will never be forgotten and who's that great? The most important thing is your life little guys. You're worth nothing dead except for speeches. Don't let them kid you any more. Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we've got to fight for liberty or whatever their word is there's always a word.

Just say mister I'm sorry I got no time to die I'm too busy and then turn and run like hell. If they say coward why don't pay any attention because it's your job to live not to die. If they talk about dying for principles that are bigger than life you say mister you're a liar Nothing is bigger than life There's nothing noble in death. What s noble about lying in the ground and rotting. What's noble about never seeing the sunshine again? What's noble about having your legs and arms blown off? What's noble about being an idiot? What's noble about being blind and deaf and dumb? What's noble about being dead. Because when you're dead mister it's all over. It's the end. You're less than a dog less than a rat less than a bee or an ant less than a white maggot crawling around on a dungheap. You're dead mister and you died for nothing.

You're dead mister. Dead.
Finally though, he is assigned a nurse who understands that he is tapping out Morse code with his head. His hopes soar as he imagines being released from the Hospital. But the doctors inform him that regulations forbid his release and he realizes that they can't allow the public to see him. He is the dirty little secret product of war:
And then suddenly he saw. He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be. For he had seen the future he had tasted it and now he was living it. 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. He saw a world of armless mothers clasping headless babies to their breasts trying to scream out their grief from throats that were cancerous with gas. He saw starved cities black and cold and motionless and the only things in this whole dead terrible world that made a move or a sound were the airplanes that blackened the sky and far off against the horizon the thunder of the big guns and the puffs that rose from barren tortured earth when their shells exploded.

That was it he had it he understood it now he had told them his secret and in denying him they had told him theirs.
Trumbo's audacity here is astounding, but his argument is inept and his metaphor inapt. First, the metaphor of this dying soldier as the new Christ bringing the message that nothing is worth dying for, is simply asinine. Christ, of course, is humankind's prime example of the belief that some things are worth sacrificing your own life.

Second, consider Trumbo's argument even briefly, and you will quickly perceive that it is internally inconsistent. If nothing is worth dying for then warfare makes perfect sense. When a malicious power attacks, you had better fight back or you will be dead. & nothing's worth dying for... Doesn't exactly hold together does it?

This is not actually even pacifism. On the contrary, the true pacifist believes that there is nothing worth killing for. You can't control the actions of others, only your own actions. You must decide not to take life, even at the expense of your own. I disagree with this, but it is a valid philosophy and many pacifists have shown extraordinary courage--Quakers who went to prison rather than go to war and Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights activists come to mind. This form of pacifism is noble and honorable, even if it is dangerous.

On the other hand, what Trumbo is really espousing is a slave philosophy. Carried to its logical conclusion, his argument is a call for men to cede freedom and submit to enslavement in order to preserve their own lives. But of what value is such a life? Thankfully, Trumbo and his Communist cohorts were defeated and we never had to find out.

Ultimately, this book is more interesting as a justification for the Blacklist, than as a statement about war.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

Comments:

Whittaker Chamber's biography, Witness. (should be autobiography)

- steve

- Oct-05-2008, 12:26

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Trumbo was under Communist Party discipline when he wrote the book. It was propaganda for the Comintern's policy at the time. Those who who don't have the historical knowledge to understand what that means should read Whittaker Chamber's biography, Witness.

- steve

- Oct-05-2008, 12:20

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I honestly don't think you have any idea what your talking about. As far as I'm concerned the book has nothing to do with communism, democracy, or anti-war themes. The fact that at the end of the book Joe calls for the little guys to rise up against the big guys, the very big guys who were forcing them to go to war, says that war is unavoidable; A necessary evil. You must have skimmed the book or something because you completely missed the point, and your "review" is very narrow minded. An F! seriously?

no no

Some of the passages in the book were so powerful they gave me the shivers. I would read the book again if I were you.

Andrew

- Andrew H.

- Oct-18-2006, 21:34

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The passage that should have been quoted was the one about what goes through a soldier's mind as he dies. That was about as poignant a bit of writing as I've ever seen.

I was disappointed with the way Trumbo changed Bonham from a consummately isolated individual into a "we" in the final chapter. I guess Bonham was intended to be an everyman, but collectivization robs one of his identity.

I have never become engrossed in a book like I did in this telling of Bonham's story.

- Robert D.

- Aug-09-2005, 17:29

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You have completely missed the point of the book. WWI was a senseless loss of life. All who fought in WWI have my utmost respect and Lest We Forget the dead. Trumbo is protesting a senseless loss of life, not the defence of freedom. This can be seen when he admits in teh foreword that he is glad the book went out of print during WWII as it was not a romantic war and Hitler had to be stopped.

You need to look deeper than just slamming Communism to make an hoesnt judgement of this book.

- andrew

- Jun-05-2005, 02:15

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So everyone that is saying this review is bad... a link to a good article would be helpful for people in the future.

- nublet

- May-03-2005, 23:47

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What the hell is wrong with you? You are the kind of person who shouldn't be allowed to publish things online, and frankly I'm upset that when I searched for a review your article came up. You have no place wasting my time with a rant, an ineffective, inaccurate rant that loses itself halway through, only to contradict itself at the end. Do us all a favor and get a grip!

- Ezra

- Apr-11-2005, 02:11

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I just read this book for school and did research on Dalton Trumbo as well. I also see no book review. I see a rant about communism. Which is fine because really communisms not a terrific idea. But the background is sketchy and missing quite a few facts and has some facts that are completely mixed up. For research purposes this review was very unhelpful.

- Kelsey

- Apr-07-2005, 14:48

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I agree with E. Parker but at the same time disagree. I believe that the facts about this book are true just some are missing, yes, there are passages from the book but that help readers understand what and if they want to read the book...

- M. H.

- Mar-11-2005, 19:03

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I don't see an actual book review. The reviewer gives a little background information on the author, which, by the way, is very sketchy, and then he quotes a passage from the book. None of this constitutes a review.

- E. Parker

- Oct-27-2004, 10:25

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