Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Joe Bonham

Johnny Got His Gun tells the story of Joe Bonham, who lies injured in a hospital bed. Joe recalled scenes from his past when he came to his senses. The scenes are the night before he left his girlfriend Kareen to go to WWI and the night his father died. Joe grew up in Shale City, a small town in Colorado, before his family moved to Los Angeles. He recalled small-town pictures and memories, such as the food his mother would prepare, the night he lost his girlfriend Diane to his best friend Bill Harper, and the first time the plane came to Shale City.

From past to present, Joe thinks regretfully about his decision to join the war, which is none of his business. Gradually, he realized that he had been seriously injured and was in the hospital. Gradually, Joe felt his leg and arm had been amputated. He also noticed that he was missing his face and was only left with the mask that had previously covered it, which prevented him from being able to smell, hear, see, or talk.

He wondered bitterly about the doctors’ motivations for saving him. While reliving memories, Joe lives in his head; nightmares constantly terrorize him. He wondered how he could tell if he was asleep or awake.

365 Days

Officially, his father was unsuccessful because he still needed to make money. He thought about his father maintaining a beautiful garden in the city’s wasteland and feeding his children well. However, Joe continues to have bitter thoughts about dying in war and the stupidity of fighting that has nothing to do with him. Likewise, with the trickery of abstract words like democracy and freedom, he is just trying to fill his mind with numbers, facts and stories.

As time passed, he realized that he should use the remaining skin. A blanket does not cover his neck skin, so try to feel the outside world. He developed a plan of waiting for the sun to rise to count the nurse’s visits and the days that passed. One year passed, and he had reached his goal and counted up to 365 days. Just as he celebrates every Sunday of his year, he celebrates New Year’s in his mind by imagining a walk in the woods.

Joe was amazed that the hospital staff was preparing him for visitors to see in his fourth year. However, he felt the visitors put something on his chest. He realized that they were giving him a medal.


Visitors try to remove their masks to show how much damage people like Joe have suffered in the war. Meanwhile, the generals emerge unharmed. Being shuddered and angry on his bed, Joe felt the vibrations of the men leaving the room. He thought that if he could sense the outside world through vibrations, he could communicate with the outside world through vibrations. By tapping SOS in Morse code on his head, his nurse assumed Joe was having a seizure and sedated him.

Joe awakens from his sedation, realizing that he has a new nurse. The new nurse tries to communicate with Joe by spelling Merry Christmas on his chest. He signaled with his head that he understood. After that, he started trying to intercept Morse’s code on her; the nurse finally realized he was trying to communicate with words. The nurse finds a man who understands Morse code and knocks Joe on the forehead with the words, “what do you want?”

Joe merely thought about how absurd the question was for a while. He tried to think about what exactly he wanted. As a teaching tool about the facts of conflict, he requested in Morse code to travel to the outside world.

New Messiah on the Battlefield

However, the man listened to his answer, came back, and knocked his head “what you asked for was regulation.” However, Joe was no longer paying attention when the man kept tapping on another message. He was still trying to process betrayal on the part of those he fought when he felt the hospital staff drugging him again. By constantly tapping the “why?”—Joe abruptly recognized they were afraid to let him out, so they would not allow him to talk.

Therefore, he let others see him as the “new messiah on the battlefield.” If other men saw Joe, they would no longer agree to go to war. Johnny Got His Gun is unmistakably an anti-war book. Dalton Trumbo wrote the book in 1938, and J. B. Lippincott published it in September 1939. The book won one of the earliest National Book Awards: Most Original Book in 1939. A 1971 film adaptation Trumbo directed and wrote for the screen himself.

In addition, the title is a play on the phrase “Johnny get you a gun,” a familiar rallying cry used to encourage young Americans to enlist in the military in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of protagonist Joe’s early memories are based on Trumbo’s early life in Los Angeles and Colorado.

Dalton Trumbo

Inspired by an article about two seriously injured men that Trumbo had read, the book is a pacifist work that emerged during a time of war. However, the book received such favorable reviews that it won the American Booksellers Award in 1940. Serialized in the Daily Worker in March 1940, the US Communists—of which Trumbo was a member—published the book. It became a rallying point for the political left against involvement in WWII during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact period (1939-1941).

At the time, the Soviet Union maintained a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Not long after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Trumbo and his publishers decided to suspend the book’s reprinting until the war’s end. It was due to the US Communist Party’s support for the war during the US allied with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. In the preface to the 1959 reprint, Trumbo describes receiving letters from far-right isolationists.

They asked for a copy of the book when it was out of print. Trumbo contacted the FBI, handing them the papers. However, he regretted the decision after two FBI agents arrived at his home. It became clear that their interest was not in the papers but in Trumbo.

Us Against Them

Johnny Got His Gun has its roots in anti-war sentiment which involves the brutality of war. Joe protested against the organization of modern warfare aimed at the interests of the wealthy classes. He thought that in terms of the “us against them” axis, it quickly became clear what he meant by the obscure term. “Us” refers to the poorer class working with their hands, making little money and potentially being happy in their local lives.

On the other hand, “them” refers to the upper class who are rich in interests because they have dictated the war. However, they did not endanger themselves but instead sent workers to fight against other workers. The higher class’s oppression of the working class does not involve outright force. Overlappingly, the book traces how power operates in more subtle ways. Misleading abstract words like “freedom” are just one small example.

In short, socialism offers a helpful way of understanding the novel’s politics. Despite the nuances of Joe’s beliefs not necessarily following strictly traditional socialist doctrine, the book is a political witch hunt. It resulted in the blocklisting and imprisonment of the author, becoming one of the most enduring antiwar statements in American literature. Joe needed to relearn how to use his body and mind as a unit.

Undermining Idealism

However, he is the symbol of the victim who threatens to undermine the abstract ideals that persuade the proletariat to fight for their oppressors. In Trumbo’s text, the body is our common medium in owning the world and the figurative weight that underlies us. Joe’s autonomy and freedom have limits due to his physical limitations. Not to mention, his involvement in the world of an oppressive hierarchical system gave birth to the reification of social relations.

Trumbo builds on the Johnny Got His Gun dialectics on the works of György Lukács and Mikhail Bakhtin, expressing what we can best describe as a body of grotesque, reified, and phenomenal. One wonders how an influential book like Johnny Got His Gun would have been the subject of countless reviews, essays, and scholarly articles. However, the world of literary criticism has relatively overlooked the book until now.

According to Eugene Torisky, literary circles have wrongly dismissed the book for its disturbing yet amateurish one-note antiwar treaties. Meanwhile, few people who have written the study praise its originality, style and boldness. For example, Tim Blackmore discusses elements of postmodern and modern texts in the book. However, he does not talk much about Joe’s politics which causes his downfall.


In the book, reification is an ancient concept in class discourse. First appearing in Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume I, it is concerned mainly with class consciousness and history. He describes a process arising from commodity relations in its most straightforward form. Social relations and humans act as objective properties of objects. According to Lukács, reification was born in managers and workers who became cogs in the machine.

In the past, humans were first; in the future, the system should be first. The first object of any sound system is to develop first-class human beings. On the other hand, the best people rose to the top more quickly and indeed than before. Lukács marks a form of total reification in which man’s physical body and mental faculties become objects for exploitation and industry workers. Therefore, Trumbo’s symbolism and narrative allude to the process by vividly using Joe’s flashbacks from the intricate work sketches.

Another narrative and symbolism of Trumbo is Joe’s belief in the purpose of going to war. According to Joe, his goals have nothing to do with him, even with people like him. He understood that people like himself had nothing to gain by fighting wars on other people’s terms.

Skeptical Words

He understands that most men fight for idealistic expectations. In addition, he became skeptical about such abstract ideals and values. He understands that abstract words like freedom and democracy can change their meaning. People often mean the word in interpreting it for a particular situation or person. With his unique position on the verge of death and life, Joe can attest that a dying person only thinks of friends, family, and, most importantly, the will to live.

Half cynically, he suggests that men should get real rewards for their battles, whether it is the house or otherwise. Such compensation might lighten the general feeling that people like Joe feel. It makes the war seem more “worth it.” In addition, his realistic tone suggests that war, death, injury, and pain have no noble cause because of the abstract. They are still moving and must be avoided at all costs.

Therefore, Joe’s unique condition acts as a living piece of flesh. It puts him in a predicament where he must slowly make sense of the world through his limited capacity. His bodily involvement in the world limits all his aspects of existence, whether memory, freedom, space, and time. However, what serves as a vehicle and a burden for Joe becomes allegorical.

Physical Limitations

We can only begin to sympathize with the average Joe as an individual after being detached from agency and feelings. However, it did not change that they had to continue to force and silence him to endure such an existence after the war. Joe does his best to perceive reality with the power of his newly acquired sensations. Despite his new physical limitations, he only has thoughts and only wants to experience clear thinking.

The question is: how is Joe going to do all that except when there are visitors or nurses nearby? After several missteps, he recaptured the place and sense of time by counting. Joe also uses his skin to create his phenomenal body, which allows him to get closer to reality and a sense of time. All he had to do was feel it with his skin. Then, Joe will check by counting the nurse’s visits to the next sunrise and will know the number of visits per day.

In essence, he will always be able to tell the time. At the start of Johnny Got His Gun, Joe feels the doctors amputating his arm. He wondered where they would bury the arm and if they would respect him.

Grisly Imagery

The book shows that it is a dilemma that must be overcome outside of modern warfare. Modern warfare creates an unprecedented dilemma. Likewise, with the decay and injury specimens, the unparalleled horror of Joe’s body is the book’s heart. However, Joe’s story and images reinforce such a presence that we remember ourselves as men with a strange formation of war that engulfs their bodies.

Like a man whose face burned with a flare, the consequences of such creation of monsters by modern warfare are modern tastes and medicine. Trumbo describes modern medicine as having less saving grace than its actual contributions. From the ugliness that war visits to the body through war, doctors manipulate deformed bodies for their prestige and amusement. Like the tales of doctors stitching a flap over a man’s open abdominal wound, they added to the unnaturalness of the soldier’s body.

When people lusting for or being attracted to such weirdness is the ultimate by-product of modern warfare, Joe understands the growing desire. On the other hand, people see the terrible victims of war. Therefore, Joe emphasizes his potential to be a visual appeal in leaving the hospital. WWI left no shortage of grisly images in its aftermath.

Mutilating the Body

Trumbo can choose a series of grisly images when remembering such things when describing his protagonist. However, he describes Joe as an ordinary person without legs with holes that chew the mouth and nose as the openings of a living human face. From the start, Joe wanted to use what little Joe had left to undermine the power that turned him into a grotesque quirk. He would show off himself by showing all the little people what would become of them.

While he did it freely and independently, he would show himself to the little people, his mothers, fathers, brothers, wives, girlfriends, grandmothers, and grandfathers. Despite the book’s fictional world rejecting Joe’s wish, it continues to be fulfilled as each new generation of readers encounters Johnny Got His Gun. It seems, however, to be a sentiment that most critics agree with.

Despite nothing connecting it with the odd realism the scholar describes, Johnny’s mutilated body still alive becomes an ominous sign. It subverts the traditional rhetoric that mobilizes the masses to fight for human rights, democracy and their king. In other words, the book represents the wishes of its protagonist, which are fulfilled because his body, mind, and life are degraded, acting as a cautionary tale for everyone who reads it.


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