A Searing Struggle to Regain Humanity

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Title: Johnny Got His Gun

Rating: 5 Stars

This work has a huge reputation for being an anti-war novel, and indeed it has a strong anti-war message. It includes scorching indictments of why men go to war, the futility of going to war, the impact that it has on the men that go to war, and of course, the men that order other men to go to war.

It had a clear impact upon the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was read during Vietnam War demonstrations. Ron Kovic, who was severely wounded in Vietnam and later became a strong voice of anti-war protest, in the introduction to this version of the novel, calls out Johnny Got His Gun as a seminal work that inspired a severely handicapped person like himself to act.  He specifically cites meeting Dalton Trumbo as a critical moment in his life.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of the political message, especially in this day and age where we’re living pretty much in a state of permanent war. The message is important, needs to be heard, and needs to be spread far and wide.

From a purely literary point of view, I found the non-political part of the work more powerful.

Joe Bonham wakes up, but has no idea of what has happened to him. What has happened is that, while serving in WWI, he was hit by an explosion, and through some medical miracle, he was saved. However, he lost both arms and both legs. A major part of his face was also blown off, so he is now blind, deaf, and can’t speak.  There is now a hole where his eyes, nose, and mouth were.

Slowly, over the length of the first half of the novel, he comes to realize the extent of his injuries. While doing so, he lives in a confused slurry of dreaming and waking, never sure of his state. He remembers fondly his love of Kareen, happy memories with his family, and working in a bakery. He remembers times of pain, when his best friend cheated on his then girlfriend and how he thought he’d never recover from it.

As he comes to grips with his new life, he understandably suffers despair and hopelessness. He has no idea how much time he has lost (days, months, years) and he has no way to communicate to the outside world. It appears that he’s on an inevitable course to madness.

This reminds me of the third part of Beckett’s trilogy named Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnameable. The Unnameable was one of the most unreadable books that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Huge chunks of it can best be explained as a disembodied voice speaking into nothingness. It’s an interesting concept, what would such a voice say if it actually existed? One thing is that it must incessantly talk, since to stop talking would be to lose existence. Since it is, like other living things, impelled to exist, it must always talk. Much of what it says must almost necessarily be nonsense, since no one can speak clearly and rationally nonstop. This forced me to a second conclusion, which is that the voice must also be insane. Bereft of any other sensory input other then the sound of its own voice, the voice loses all contact with reality and rationality.

As I read of Joe’s suffering, it would seem that he’s in the exact same strait as that formless voice from Beckett’s novel.

However, his humanity and perseverance begins to shine through. He tries to figure out how to calculate the passage of time. After many false starts, he succeeds.

He stumbles upon a method of communication. He can move his head, so he starts to beat Morse code on the bed. The attendants understandably think that he’s suffering, so they sedate him. He continues to struggle, and finally, a nurse makes the connection of what he’s doing. She summons someone who can tap Morse code.

Finally! He makes a connection to the outside world. He urgently communicates that he wants to be used as an example. He wants to go out and travel the world and tell/show everyone the evils of war. People will see the monster that he has become and this will once and for all inspire the people, the men that actually fight the wars, to rebel against the masters that send them to war.

There is a pause after he communicates this. The word then comes back that this will not be permitted. After all, it’s the masters that are keeping him alive in the ward. They will not and cannot permit him to spread his anti-war message. As he’s raging his anti-war message in his head, they are sedating him and his tapping becomes slower and slower. His voice will be silenced.

And there the book ends.

Will Joe spend the rest of his life in a narcotic haze to keep him silenced? Will this be the final act that will drive Joe to madness? Will the little man ever have a chance to overthrow the bosses that callously lead them into slaughter?

The fact that the book leaves these questions unanswered is probably the answer to those questions.

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