Joe Bonham is the narrator and protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun.”
The title of the novel alludes to a war time song that includes the line "Johnny get your gun" well Joe Bonham did get his gun, and the results are that he has lost everything.
He lost all his limbs, his face and his tongue. He can’t see anything, he can’t hear anything, he can’t smell anything and he can’t feel anything. He is not quite sure if he is dead or alive.
He is unable to fully experience the outside world. He slowly realises that he is in fact alive and he is in a hospital cared for by a nurse who was trying to communicate with him. He stared to bang his head against the pillow, trying to signal a Morse code to the nurse. But the nurse thinks he is suffering severe pain, and she sedates him.
Eventually the nurse gets a man who understands Morse code. This man taps onto Joe's forehead the words "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
Joe asks in Morse code to be taken around the outside world as an educational exhibit on the realities of war.
The man listens to his response and returns a while later to tap into his head, "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS!"
Joe starts thinking bitterly about the war that left him on the edge of horrible and unbearable existence. Who decided that young men should be sent to dye in a foreign land for reasons they don’t understand. They are told to go to war, leave their families, their friends, and their sweetheart and die for "liberty," "democracy," "freedom," and "decency."
He starts to questions the meaning or rather the meaningless of these words:
"What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's a word like house or table or any other word. Only it's a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it.
But a guy says come on let's fight for liberty and he can't show you liberty. He can't prove the thing he's talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?
No sir anybody who went out and got into the front line trenches to fight for liberty was a goddamn fool and the guy who got him there was a liar.”
"Then there was this freedom the little guys were always getting killed for. Was it freedom from another country? Freedom from work or disease or death? Freedom from your mother-in-law? Please mister gives us a bill of sale on this freedom before we go out and get killed."
Joe dreams that a rat eats from the open wound in his side. The rat is part of a memory that Joe has from the war, when he found a dead soldier with a rat eating his face. Joe recognizes the rat is the true enemy of all the soldiers. The rat represents the warmongers who stand to profit from war, just as a rat feeds itself off of the decay and injury of wounded or dead soldiers. It is those RATS
“Who urge us on to battle, who incite us against ourselves, who would have one human being who wants only to live kill another human being who wants only to live. You patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans.”
Here are some of the most moving and poignant quotes from this wonderful novel:
“Did anybody ever come back from the dead? Any single one of the millions who got killed? Did any one of them ever come back and say by god I'm glad I'm dead? Did they say I'm glad I died for democracy?
Did any of them ever say it's good to think I got my guts blown out for the honour of my country?
Did any of them ever say look at me I'm dead but I died for decency and that's better than being alive? Did any of them ever say here I am I've been rotting for two years in a foreign grave but it's wonderful to die for your native land? Did any of them say hurray I died I'm happy see how I sing even though my mouth is choked with worms?
“If the thing they were fighting for was important enough to die for then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it in the last minutes of their lives. That stood to reason.
Life is awfully important so if you've given it away you'd ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded it for. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honour and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?
You're goddamn right they didn't.
They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend.
They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child. They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life.
They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs.
They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live."
"They are talking like fools. They are saying that two and two make nothing. They are saying that a man will have to die to in order to protect his life. If you agree to fight you agree to die. Now if you die to protect your life you aren't alive anyhow so how is there any sense in a thing like that?"
“Oh Kareen why do they have a war right now just when we find each other? Kareen we've got more important things than war. Us Kareen you and me in a house. I'll come home at night to you in my house your house our house. We'll have fat happy kids smart kids too. That's more important than a war. Oh Kareen I look at you and you're only nineteen and you're old, old like an old woman.
Kareen I look at you and I cry inside and I bleed.”