Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
This was no ordinary war. This was a war to make the world safe for democracy. And if democracy was made safe, then nothing else mattered--not the millions of dead bodies, nor the thousands of ruined lives...This is no ordinary novel. This is a novel that never takes the easy way out: it is shocking, violent, terrifying, horrible, uncompromising, brutal, remorseless and gruesome...but so is war.
What a book. This is an utterly unforgettable work; a masterpiece wrapping the romanticism of war into a tight parcel and storing it forever out of sight.
Joe Bonham is a soldier who is hit with a German shell in WWI. He wakes up in hospital unable to see, hear, speak, or even move. His injuries are horrific, but not quite as horrifying as following his mental state as he comes to terms with the loss of his senses, each of his limbs, and practically, his life. He's a dead man who thinks, and his thoughts are profound, they are tormented, they are hopeless, and they are beautiful.
We are shown Joe's mental decline as he comes to terms with his disability (if disability is strong enough a word to describe what Joe is suffering). We are shown memories of his life before he entered into war. We hear his thoughts on fighting for democracy, for decency, and I'll be damned if we don't agree with each and every single one of them as we lie on that bed immobile with him.
Joe painstakingly learns how to keep track of time. He counts the nurse's visits, he counts his baths, the times his bed is changed. He loses count, and in doing so, loses a bit of his mind each time. He tries again; he has nothing else to do. He spends days working out how to communicate; rejoices when he does, only to discover what he has to say has no importance to the man; he is to remain silent, to remain trapped. This is undoubtedly the most harrowing point of them all.
Trumbo's juxtaposition of past and present sent shockwaves through me. Just as I was spending young adult years with Joe, I was transported back into that room I couldn't see or smell, and reminded we were trapped, prisoners in Joe's body without a hope in hell. The contrast of his freedom against his captivity was heartbreaking, sickening, and hurt me deeply.
I was amazed this was published in 1939. It feels so contemporary, so real, and entirely relevant that it's a wonder almost eighty years have passed without the slightest political change on the novel's themes. Trumbo conveys a perfect anti-war message that is impossible to argue with; the importance of human life, the futility of war, and the price we pay to those who orchestrate the wars, yet never seem to fight them.
As someone who can't quite bear watching the news most days, as someone who likes to hide from the atrocities of our world, this hit me hard. Read this for the message, read it for the story, I don't care. I consider this required reading despite the gloom, despite the claustrophobia, and despite the horror of being imprisoned in your own body. Read it to learn about war.