25 August 2011

50. Johnny Got His Gun

Johnny Got His Gun - Dalton Trumbo

The only book I can recall reading where every word is written from the thoughts of a single person. No narrator. No additional perspective. Not one single external word. One man's thoughts and memories. That is all. He does not go anywhere or do anything other than attempt to communicate with the world...and think.

I saw this book every time I went to the bookshelf in the last two years to choose which book I would read next. Every time I would pull it down and put it into the "short-list" stack (usually 4-5 books). Every time I would put it back saying "next time".

A few weeks ago I was cranking "One" by Metallica and it reminded me of this book because the music video used a lot of scenes from the original movie starring Timothy Bottoms. I made a decision. I immediately went to the bookshelf and picked out this book. I began reading it right then.

The impact this book made on me was impressive. It made me cry. Literally. It made me shake and want to scream at times when I was being empathetic to what Joe was thinking or feeling. Those types of feelings from some written words do not come often.

I know a lot of military people. I am retired military myself. It took all I had not to put my friends faces, or my own, onto Joe Bonham's body in the novel. The problem was that Joe had no face. My friends had no faces. My friends were in this predicament.

Then, for those that know me, there was the "trapped" factor. One of my fears is being trapped in a cave, or under snow in an avalanche, or in a building after an earthquake...anywhere that I can not escape from and will just be there forever waiting to starve or suffocate. It is even worse if the confines are so tight that I cannot move. It causes sleepless nights when I have those dreams...but that is a different story.

Anyway, this book was like those dreams. This is a man who has no arms and legs. A paraplegic. That sucks, but it is not the end of the world. But, Joe also had head trauma. He lost his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. He lost his hearing, his sight, the ability to smell and taste. He could not speak. He lost the ability to communicate at all. He was stuck in a prison exactly the same size as his own mind and body. Imagine being fully aware of your predicament and being able to do nothing about it...for years on end. Imagine that you really can't be sure if you are awake or asleep and dreaming because it all feels the same. That freaked me out!

One of my favorite parts of the book is where Joe was talking to himself about why he went to war. He was drafted in WWI, but the sales pitch was about words like "liberty", "democracy", "freedom" and "patriotism". These words are used to inspire the little guys into doing their duty. Problem...Joe fought for all of them and has none of them despite still being alive and winning the war. These words are not concrete. They are abstract terms with different meanings to different people at different times. They can be tools used to manipulate.

A memorable quote: "What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's just 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?"

The book is obviously anti-war and does a great job of making it's point about the brutality and inhumanity or warfare. It also has a bit of class warfare going on. The upper-class ordering wars and the lower-class (little guys) fighting them and dying for the causes of the rich and powerful.

I am very impressed with this book and will be putting it back on the keeper shelf with other books I consider worthy of staying after being read. (Great Gatsby, Mother Night, The Kite Runner, True Grit, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, Night, Without Remorse, Into The Wild, etc).

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