By Georgia Wyess
Books taught in school should mean something. They should move you to better yourself and interest you in literature and the world around you. Yet very few books we read in class have ever achieved this feat for me and it’s a tragedy that the books that have altered my perspective aren’t even taught in school.
Johnny Got His Gun is such a book. Prior to picking up the novel, I never had a strong opinion on war. Yes, I believe wars are drastic means to solving a solution that could have had a diplomatic solution, and the chaos and disruption such large-scale battles bring was not a new concept; however, after reading Johnny Got His Gun my feeble beliefs suddenly morphed into new perspectives. The Dalton Trumbo novel changed the lens through which I view conflict, not only in the big scheme of combat, but also in small confrontations everyone has experienced.
A brief synopsis of the book: Joe Bonham, an injured soldier, lies in a hospital bed with severe injuries sustained in battle. He survives—that is, his mind and soul—however, his arms and legs are missing, he has burns all over his body, and has lost his sight and hearing due to an explosion in the battle field. He can breathe and eat only with the aid of a tube. Despite his state, Bonham is still considered alive and the nurses and doctors are tasked with making his final days as comfortable as possible. The terrifying aspect of the whole situation, however, is that no matter how loud the protagonist screams, no matter how alive he feels, he will never be heard by the outside world. He has lost all contact with what we consider to be reality and is forced to attempt communication with the world outside. Moreover, the age of the main protagonist is the same as that of a recent high school graduate. The kid was only eighteen or nineteen years old when he lost the rest of his life. No matter how bad a situation gets, no one should have to face the possibility of their future being stripped away from them, especially not at that young of an age. Joe Bonham, on the other hand, has had everything that makes life worth living taken away; the experience of laughter, sight, the ability to listen to birds sing
Yes, this is a gruesome picture and a difficult aspect to read, yet this is the reality of war. English teachers everywhere would reap fantastic joy from teaching this novel. Not only is it incredibly didactic, but the novel is also full of parts that are able to be analyzed from his memories to the visitors that come to visit the “soldier without a name.” Even the title, Johnny Got His Gun, could be analyzed in the grand scheme of the novel. Does the phrase “got his gun” refer to his enthusiasm of joining the war? Is the statement meant to be read in a pessimistic light where the “gun” is something that happened to him? Is the “gun” really a gun at all.
Students also benefit from reading this novel because of the historical implications of the story. Released only three days after the beginning of the second World War, Johnny Got His Gun can be read directly from the perspective of the time. A skill that English classes fail to teach students is the ability to scrutinize the text that will greet us in our actual lives. We learn to analyze and discuss novels from a time we have no control over, yet we are never taught how to deem news sources or documents trustworthy. Johnny Got His Gun may be taught side-by-side with the historical events of the time, giving students a chance to take the novel and compare it to what was actually happening during the time— a skill that will be useful in the future as scholars will have the tools needed to recognize the important versus the untrustworthy aspects of a work. While the reasons listed above for why Johnny Got His Gun should be taught in schools are only surface level, if I were to list every single reason why this literary masterpiece should be added to the curriculum, this article would be pages upon pages long. English teachers or Westmont, please talk to someone, anyone, and tell them to consider this novel for students in years to come to read as a part of the English curriculum on campus.