By Dan Jenkins
How are young men motivated to go to war? Their patriotism is stirred. “Do it for the country”. Their self-preservation is appealed to: “Defend your family and your way of life”. And, action statements are used to move them to join in. One such popular action statement at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century was “Johnny get your gun”.
American novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo made a play on this motto for the title of his anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Written in 1938 and published in 1939 during World War I. And, the novel used the indirect approach to make its anti-war point: it focused upon the horrors of war through the experience of one fictional character, Joe Bonham.
The novel starts off in a very scintillating way. The night before he goes to war, Joe spends the night with his fiance, with her father’s approval. Already Trumbo is firing a shot across the bow of society’s moral standards. But, perhaps this “technique” proves the human nature which desires to read privately, eavesdropping on another’s sin, what is openly disdained.
Joe goes off to war. What he experiences on a daily basis is enough to sour anyone on the glory of war. But, on the very last day of the war, Joe is hit by enemy fire. His injuries are so severe one wonders how he survived. For, he is now a quadrapalegic. That’s not all. Joe’s face has also been demolished, leaving him with no way to see or to speak. And, somehow in this blast, Joe has also lost his hearing.
Joe is now a mind captive in a body which can keep him alive, but also keeps him prisoner without capability to communicate or ambulate. He is totally at the mercy of strangers who care for him.
He wanted to commit suicide. But, how? No arms, no legs.. no way to escape his prison, the gift of glorious war.
The real story develops as Joe finally thinks of a possible way to communicate: Morse code! How can he use the code to communicate with those around him? Joe has only one part of his body he can move, his neck. So, Joe starts tapping out Morse code on his pillow.