Lee on Literature: Johnny Got His Gun

On Dec. 9, 1905, 106 years ago today, one of the most underappreciated American authors was born in Colorado: Dalton Trumbo. A prolific writer of motion picture screenplays, Trumbo credits ultimately included Kitty Foyle (1940 Academy Award nominated), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Roman Holiday (1953 Academy Award winner), The Brave One (1956 Academy Award winner under the pseudonym "Robert Rich"), and the Kirk Douglas screen classic Spartacus (1960). In addition to numerous other screenplays, Trumbo wrote nine books. The best of his literary fiction was the National Book Award winning antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1939.

Johnny Got His Gun was fiction inspired by a gruesome true story about a Canadian soldier from World War I. During battle, a mortar shell hits very close to "Johnny" Joe Bonham, causing severe physical damage. He loses both legs, both arms, eyesight and hearing—nearly every physical bridge to the outside world—yet remains alive in an Army hospital with a hood covering his disfigured face. At first, Joe cannot determine whether he is asleep or awake, alive or dead.

Slowly, he perceives his situation and becomes very pessimistic, remembering all of the good things lost from his life— health, an idyllic childhood, a hometown girlfriend, and conversation with his understanding father.

During the second half of the story, Joe becomes more optimistic and wills himself to accomplish what he can. He figures out how to tell time and then establishes communication via Morse code (banging his head on a pillow) with a nurse compassionate to his situation. His only request is to be near people and explain to them what it is like to be essentially dead. Army officers become aware of Bonham's intent and quarantine him, fearing his ideas may corrupt wartime morale. This isolation leaves Joe in a miserable state where he simply repeats "Kill me!" to the bedside nurse in Morse code.

The powerful and provocative effect of Johnny Got His Gun upon early readership led Trumbo to suspend reprints of the novel from 1941 until the end of World War II. Afterward, it became an antiwar classic, resurrected during the Vietnam era and later in the 1990s with the hit song and video "One" by the heavy metal bad Metallica.

Beyond its appeal as an antiwar story, Johnny Got His Gun artfully explores a classic 1700s debate between philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume argued that all knowledge and truth come from direct experience/interaction with objects, the indisputable and reproducible effects of outside objects. Hume's philosophy is the foundation of positivism, where scientific experiments can be tightly controlled to one variable and produce specific, repeated and measured results (produce "truths").

With “The Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant argued that knowledge and truth come from the perception of the beholder, the “scientist.” A priori screens, personal mental filters and bias interpret all information that enters or exits a being. Therefore, truth is in the eye of the beholder—or, in Frederick Nietzsche’s words, “I am the truth.” 

Kant expands his philosophy to the idea of freedom: Is it externally or internally created? Is freedom driven by internal sense or external consensus? Like his character Joe Bonham, Dalton Trumbo faced these questions after being blacklisted, along with nine other writers ("The Hollywood Ten"), by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1947. Trumbo refused to admit "communist activity" or name other communists during the Senate hearings and was sent to prison for 11 months in 1950. Afterward, Trumbo fled to Mexico for years as a political exile. Like Joe Bonham, Trumbo's voice was nearly silenced.


Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of how Mrs. Sona Choudhury's perception of Bengali culture influences her family, her life, and 20th Century India.

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