Dalton Trumbo’s novel “Johnny Got His Gun” offers a poetic homage to human senses and memories. And because Trumbo was from western Colorado, some of the word pictures he paints are familiar to me. The red and yellow of poplars and cottonwoods in autumn. The rich, spicy scent of home-preserved peaches.
Trumbo brings such artistry to describing horrors in this anti-war novel.
Twenty-year-old Joe Bonham is not so much the main as the only character. He is intelligent, inventive, unpretentious, clear-eyed. And he has been grievously injured fighting in World War I. From his hospital bed Joe conjures up in his imagination “the high mountains of Colorado in the east and … the sun coming over them and … colors creeping down their sides and in the nearer distance … rolling brown hills which became pink and lavender like the inside of a seashell.”
On visits to Trumbo’s birthplace of Montrose, Colorado I have been mesmerized by such sunrises. And I have met veterans there who were as determined as that their lives after war would have meaning and purpose.
Trumbo puts the reader in Joe’s place as the young vet realizes, in a growing rush of words and emotions, what a battlefield shell did to him:
“It was funny how calm he was. He was quiet just like a storekeeper taking spring inventory and saying to himself I see I have no eyes better put that down in the order book. He had no legs and no arms and no eyes and no ears and no nose and no mouth and no tongue. What a hell of a dream, It must be a dream. Of course sweet God it’s a dream. He’d have to wake up or he’d go nuts. Nobody could live like that. A person in that condition would be dead and he wasn’t dead so he wasn’t in that condition. Just dreaming.
“But it wasn’t a dream.”
While Trumbo may have been born in Montrose and raised in nearby Grand Junction, he had been a southern Californian for decades by the time he was making a name for himself as a writer. Still, Trumbo’s link to Montrose illustrates an aspect of the rugged, rancher, Republican region I came to understand more deeply as I researched my book on contemporary Montrose’s efforts to reach out to military veterans. Montrose is a rich resource of sometimes unexpected talents, skills and points of view.
Trumbo’s perspective was decidedly to the left of many people I met in Montrose. The Academy Award-winning scriptwriter is perhaps known as much for his work on the movies “Roman Holiday” and “Spartacus” as for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s. The U.S. Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker, serialized “Johnny” in 1940.
“Johnny” was first published “10 days after the Nazi-Soviet pact, two days after the start of World War II,” the author wrote in an introduction to a 1959 edition. He added he regretted that conservatives who weren’t so much anti-war as pro-Nazi embraced “Johnny” at the start of World War II. But he came to accept that his book’s “meaning is what each reader conceives it to be, and each reader is gloriously different from every other reader, and each is also changing.”
Eight decades ago it took a novelist to propose that a soldier would survive the wounds Joe suffered. Today, battlefield medicine is catching up with fiction. Researchers from Pew, the nonpartisan think tank that tracks social issues, public opinion and demographic trends, cited Department of Defense statistics in a 2011 report that noted that thanks to advances in medical treatment, troops wounded on the battlegrounds of the war on terror are surviving trauma that would have killed them in an earlier era. What is known as the “wounded-to-killed ratio,” or the number of service members wounded in action compared to the number who died, was 7.4 to 1 for Iraq and Afghanistan. It was 2.6 to 1 for Vietnam; and 1.7 to 1 for World War II.
Robert Gates, an Air Force veteran who served as U.S. secretary of defense for Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama, at one point added 10 medevac helicopters and three forward surgical hospitals to support troops in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. On a 2009 visit, ”one of the surgeons there told me they often could not save the life of a soldier or Marine who had lost both legs; now they did so routinely,” Gates wrote in his 2014 memoirs.
“I believe that at the outset of the Afghan and Iraq wars, neither Defense nor VA ever conceived of, much less planned for, the huge number of wounded young men and women (overwhelmingly men) who would come pouring into the system in the years ahead,” Gates went on. “Many of our troops would not have survived their wounds in previous wars, but extraordinary medical advances and the skills of those treating the wounded meant that a large number of complex injuries (including traumatic brain injuries and multiple amputations) faced prolonged treatment, years of rehabilitation, or a lifetime of disability.”
The wider public has to prepare to live, learn and work alongside more and more Joe Bonhams.
In “Johnny,” the nurses and doctors caring for Joe see him as a patient, not a person. Some recoil from the man without arms, legs or a face. Some see him as a symbol of their own medical prowess, so interested in what his survival says about them that they cannot even contemplate that he might have something to say for himself. But Joe retains his personality, his intelligence and creativity. Trumbo even portrays him as still capable of sex, which I read as a metaphor for immortality: a spirit like Joe’s cannot die. Once Joe overcomes his despair and rage, he fights to communicate and assert himself. Tapping his head against his pillow in Morse code, he outlines his plan to remain useful. He wants to be placed in a glass display case and taken out into the world so that young men eager to fight and old men intent on sending them to battle can see what war means.
“Take me wherever there are parliaments and diets and congresses and chambers of statesmen,” Joe taps out. “Before they give the order for all the little guys to start killing each other let the main guy rap his gavel on my case and point down at me and say here gentlemen is the only issue before this house and that is are you for this thing here or are you against it?”
Generation after generation of veterans have discovered “Johnny.” It was made into a film in 1971, the year that began with President Richard Nixon announcing "the end is in sight" in Vietnam. Said film critic Roger Ebert:
“Instead of belaboring ironic points about the ‘war to end war,’ Trumbo remains stubbornly on the human level. He lets his ideology grow out of his characters, instead of imposing it from above.”
“Born on the Fourth of July” author Ron Kovic said: “Trumbo influenced me profoundly at a time when my need to understand how I could take my tragedy and turn it into something useful and meaningful for others was as desperate a need … as that of Trumbo’s Joe Bonham.”
Kovic was paralyzed by a battlefield injury as a Marine in Vietnam and returned to the United States to become an anti-war activist. He wrote in a 1990 introduction to “Johnny” that Trumbo’s book showed him “that I could be an instrument of peace. I could use my body and my experience as aweful as they were to educate others about war, its futility and absurdity, its senselessness and waste, just like Joe Bonham.”
Another war, another anti-war activist. Cindy Sheehan wrote in a forward to a later edition of “Johnny” that she first read Trumbo’s book a little over a year after her son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004.
“On a number of occasions, I flung the book across the room, cursing it as it flew,” Sheehan wrote. “Was I cursing Dalton Trumbo for writing such a difficult book or George Bush for sending my son to die in another fucked-up mistake of a war?”
Trumbo died in 1976, a year after the end of Vietnam. He had been a sharp critic of that war. If he had lived to see the war on terror he might, like many Vietnam veterans, have seen parallels between the two conflicts.
After writing “Home of the Brave,” I concluded I would have to have the audacity of a veteran who has seen war to imagine a world at peace. Trumbo’s genius was helping us to visualize what wars really mean, and to understand it will take courage and imagination to end them.