26 September 2010

Banned Books Week: Johnny Got His Gun

This is the book that set me in the war-is-so-not-worth-it camp.

When my class entered ninth grade, the high school decided to create a course for Talented and Gifted (TAG) students that would combine the English and history curricula.  "Humanities" combined ninth and tenth grade English and "American Cultures" (aka US History, post-Civil War, aka "9th grade history") into a two class-period, one academic year long course.  I was invited to take the class and, hellz yes, I would be MORE THAN HAPPY to combine three classes into one big one; I was thirteen and thought I was pretty hot stuff if I got to play in the smart kids' sandbox.  We read all sorts of books for that class - Sister Carrie, Maggie: Girl of the Streets, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby - as the time periods we studied moved from Reconstruction, to Industrialization, to the Gilded Age, then World War I and the aftermath.

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo was assigned after The Great Gatsby - although Trumbo's novel was published in 1939, we read Johnny in conjunction with the rise of the Jazz Age since it is set during/immediately after World War I.  Johnny takes its title from a popular recruiting slogan used by the US military and incorporated into popular songs.  The narrator is Joe Bonham, an injured World War I soldier, who wakes to find that he can no longer see, hear, taste, or feel anything but doesn't know where he is or how he got wherever he is at currently.  We are trapped in Joe's head with him as he slowly recovers his memory and realizes that he has survived the blast from an artillery shell but is left completely disfigured, with no face, no arms, no legs, no senses.  However, he is neurologically intact.  As he struggles to try and communicate with his caregivers, Joe flashes back to life with his parents and girlfriend before the war.  Ultimately, Joe wishes to become a symbol for the horrors of war, a reminder of the human cost and sacrifice made by the average man.  Joe's desire is never fulfilled.

It is safe to say that this book blew my little teenage, John-Wayne-movie-watching mind.

I was a freshman in 1992-1993.  The US was ending the first Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm.  In junior high, we were asked to write to US servicemen (and it was servicemen, no mention of servicewomen) to help support them - I have no idea anymore what that program was called, it just happened - and a few kids got letters back (I didn't - what does a twelve year old female nerd and dancer have to say to an adult male about to get into a tank in the middle of a desert?  Not much, I can tell you, that would make the adult male want to start a pen-pal relationship without feeling like a skeeze).  We had Channel One (raise your hand if you remember Channel One) and it occasionally had news shots of Desert Storm.  Nothing too scary.  I watched a lot of John Wayne movies; war isn't very scary there, either (I hadn't yet seen Born on the Fourth of July, Patton, The Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket).  Also around this time, I developed a knee problem and I trawled through the medical section of the public library looking for information about knees; I found a book of surgical procedures that had pictures of traumatic wounds and not just any wounds, historical photographs from bombing victims in World War I undergoing cosmetic reconstruction.  Oh my God.

Johnny Got His Gun captured my imagination.  What would it be like to suddenly be trapped in your own body (this was before I'd ever heard of "locked-in syndrome")?  To be an object of revulsion, to be entirely at the mercy of the world for food, for care, for everything?  To be horribly and painfully injured because you did your "patriotic duty" and no one told you this might happen?  You would look like those pictures and worse.  Would anyone truly tell your story as you would want it to be told?  As my humanities class continued forward in history I thought "What about other wars?"  World War II - I looked for pictures of victims of the atomic bombs, of soldiers who died in Pearl Harbor.  Korea - I found information about the advances in mobile surgical hospitals (MASH units - oddly enough, I loved M*A*S*H as a TV show, but never thought of the reality before).  Vietnam - I saw pictures of monks immolating themselves, legless US servicemen, I watched Born on the Fourth of July and The Deer Hunter.  I didn't become a fervent anti-war protester but I did start to realize that there are many, many other things to think about than just a date and the winner of the war.  There ought to be an honest accounting.

Johnny Got His Gun was awarded the National Book Award in 1940.  Although the novel itself was not initially divisive, Trumbo himself was.  Trumbo was aligned with the Communist Party in the US throughout World War II and eventually formally joined the Party in the 1940s.  When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Trumbo and his publishers suspended reprinting of Johnny Got His Gun because Trumbo feared the subject was inappropriate for the time period; inquiries sent to Trumbo (many concerned that his book was suppressed by "fill in the blank") were turned over to the FBI.  In a rather nasty turn of events, the FBI came to investigate Trumbo himself because of his Communist sympathies.  In 1947 Trumbo was one of those called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as an unfriendly witness.  Trumbo refused to testify, was convicted of contempt of court, and was blacklisted in Hollywood (Trumbo covers his decision to suspend printing of Johnny in his introduction to the book, last updated in 1970 with an statistical accounting of war injuries).

The challenge history for Johnny is not extensive - I can really only find one dated to 1977 in Michigan where it was challenged for being profane, graphic, un-patriotic, and un-American.  I really don't remember anything that graphic and, FYI, the truth is not un-American.  These days, I find that I want to get Johnny Got His Gun in front of more people.  It is such a relevant book because the US, once again, is at war and members of the US Armed Forces are coming home with severe injuries.  Or not at all.  Patriotism is not just about waving flags and sending care packages to the troops; it also includes a recognition that men and women are dying and horribly injured in a time of war and the severely injured can become marginalized.  All the flag-waving in the world won't cover that up.

Johnny Got His Gun lets the reader understand what it might be like to spend the rest of your life trapped inside your head, all because you "did your patriotic duty" and served in the military.  It's a sobering thought.


  1. Anonymous3:47 AM

    un-American seems such a strange reason to challenge a book. But maybe that's because I'm not from America and don't know what is meant by the word? But to me it seems like a word that could mean anything and is thus super convenient, but in the end very misleading.

    I have never read this book, but your very personal story makes me want to.

  2. @iris - "un-American" came about when Senator McCarthy (jerk) and some other government wonks like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (also, jerk) decided that anyone who expressed any opinions running counter to the government's was acting against the good of American. So, being unpatriotic but specific to America. Never mind that the first Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly...

    And you're right - it is a vague term; people who expressed doubts as to whether it was appropriate for the US to invade Afghanistan/Iraq after 9/11 were called "un-American" so it's still around.

  3. I remember channel 1. I also read JGG in high school and my mind was blown. I found the book in a pile of old books. I found it very hard to read because of my lack of interest at time of reading, but at same time needed to finish it because I need to finish thins I start. It's book I have thought a lot about in my life and changed the way I think. It was the best book I had to force myself to finish. I really liked your post because of my similar story. I also was big John Wayne fan which I kept quite in my social circle. l