March 6, 2015



Published in 1938, Johnny Got His Gun is an under-appreciated gem of experimental American literature. Told in a narrative mixture of first, second, and third-person, Trumbo's First World War-set novel is a dream and a nightmare. The protagonist, Joe, regains consciousness in a military hospital only to discover that he has lost his arms, legs, eyes, mouth, nose and hearing. The novel is a gripping but depressing journey, through which Joe remembers his rosy - and pointedly physical - life in America, and his attempts to communicate with the outside world and to come to terms with existing as a conscious piece of meat. In its own extreme way, it highlights the sensory struggles that all those wounded or disabled must endure. The huge efforts made for the tiniest of victories -  such as telling the time of day by feeling sunlight on his skin  -  are situated in an unremittingly bleak context: Joe is imprisoned within his wounded body forever.

Despite focusing on the journey of one man, Johnny Got His Gun is about the manipulation and obliteration of a generation of American youth. The title is a response to the wartime song 'Over there', which called, in short, for Johnny to get his gun to fight the Hun and make his mother proud. Joe got his gun, and lost everything. The extent of his wounds represent all the horrors of war in one character. Trumbo may have written specifically about the suffering of one man, but it is clear that this novel is about every other Joe and Johnny who picked up their guns and died on the battlefields. His prose shifts freely from a third-person narrative, to a polemical 'J'Accuse!' from the point of view of 'us' against them. It's all very reminiscent of Anthem for Doomed Youth, Dulce et Decorum est, and All Quiet on the Western Front, which similarly dwelt on the industrial, futile loss of life in the First World War.

Johnny Got His Gun suffered an unfortunate history. Published in 1939, its subject matter didn't perhaps grab the American imagination in the same way as novels of the Great Depression. As America moved towards the Second World War, the novel's ostensible pacifism worked against it. It was popular among the American left, being serialised by the Daily Worker in 1940, but this only earnt Trumbo the suspicion of the FBI. Johnny Got His Gun was subsequently championed by anti-war American fascists and anti-Semites, who were seeking a compassionate cover for their Nazi sympathies.

Huh?  It's not an anti-war novel at all.  It's a propoganda piece to try and keep America from intervening while Stalin and Hitler waged war on Eastern Europe, which, of course, is why the Daily Worker serialized it.

Posted by at March 6, 2015 2:16 PM

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