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Dalton Trumbo’s unforgettable lesson about war

The War to End All Wars destroyed a generation and left Western Europe a wasteland.
The War to End All Wars destroyed a generation and left Western Europe a wasteland.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Of the three books reread this summer more than 40 years after reading them the first time: JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo’s heart wrenching work frightened me then and saddens me now, and left me profoundly changed.

The first time I read Johnny Got His Gun (Lippincott, 1939), we were in the worst part of the Vietnam War. Like many of my generation, I was furious with our government for putting soldiers in harm’s way for no good reason. I protested alongside older college students, faced the National Guard, and felt angry at how wrong it all was.

Then I read Trumbo’s book and it changed my thinking. I still hated the war and I still voiced that anger, but now it came from a different point of view - that of the soldier - not the privileged kid without a clue.

One of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written, Johnny Got His Gun takes place in World War I - the War to End All Wars - wiping out an entire generation of young men and leaving western Europe a wasteland. The main character is an American soldier named Joe Bonham. He has been horribly wounded, and while he can sense vibration, he cannot see or speak. He has no arms, no legs, no face. All were blown off in an artillery explosion. This is his story - from his point of view.

Trumbo pulls you inside this man’s mind. Joe learns to cope with not knowing what time it is, what day it is or where he is. He is lost and unknown but knows who he is and can’t communicate. He has questions and memories and is totally alone. It is a frustrating, dark and frightening book, and one of the most important you will ever read.

Johnny Got His Gun was awarded the National Book Award and was named the Most Original Book of 1939. Although written decades ago, its message is timeless and unforgettable.

Dalton Trumbo, an Academy Award winning screenwriter, was blacklisted for refusing to testify before Congress about communism in the motion picture industry. He was convicted of contempt of Congress and served eleven months in prison. He wrote the screenplays for Exodus, Spartacus and Roman Holiday among others. He died in 1976 at the age of 70.

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