I first encountered this book on Pop Crunch's list of the ten most disturbing books of all time. It is the story of Joe, an American soldier from the First World War whose arms, legs, and face are blown off by an artillery shell in the final weeks of the war.
He wakes up to find that he is completely immobile. Joe has no sense of hearing, sight, taste, or smell. He is trapped inside of his own mind, unable to tell dreams from reality or know about the world around him.
This book was apparently very controversial when first released in 1938. It was immediately picked up by the pacifist movement in America as a voice against war and, eventually, U.S. entry into World War II. Trumbo was a Communist, and in the introduction of the edition that I read, noted the irony that it was initially unpopular with his colleagues until the Nazi-Soviet pact, when they reversed themselves and instead sang its praises.
Trumbo himself saw the second war as quite different from the first, and was not inclined to oppose it. After it ended, however, he was convicted of contempt of Congress (is that a crime? I have nothing but contempt for Congress) for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Johnny Got His Gun is not a pacifist book in the sense that it morally opposes violence. Rather, it is extremely skeptical of war and its advocates. For example, while in the prison of his mind, Joe contemplates:
No sir anybody who went out and got into the front line trenches to fight for liberty was a goddam fool and the guy who got him there was a liar. Next time anybody came gabbling to him about liberty -- what did he mean next time? There wasn't going to be any next time for him. but the hell with that. If there could be a next time and somebody said let's fight for liberty he would say mister my life is important. I'm not a fool and when I swap my life for liberty I've got to know in advance what liberty is and whose idea of liberty we're talking about and just how much of that liberty we're going to have. And what's more mister are you as much interested in this liberty as you want me to be? And maybe too much liberty will be as bad as too little liberty and I think you're a goddam fourflusher talking through your hat and I've already decided that I like the liberty I've got right here and the liberty to walk and see and hear and eat and sleep with my girl. I think I like that liberty better than fighting for a lot of things we won't get and ending up without any liberty at all.
Joe is a victim of World War I, and if there is ever a war worthy of skepticism, it's that one. His fate, trapped inside of his mind in a senseless body in what he thinks is a hospital bed, actually gets worse at the end of the book. There is no happy ending. Johnny Got His Gun is a grueling depiction of human suffering and human evil. It is brilliantly written.
Metallica released a song entitled "One" in 1988 based on this book: