One of the favorite pastimes of both my wife Jenn and I is reading. We both do a lot of it , probably too much. She's into science fiction / fantasy novels (and reads a ton of them) while I prefer the classics, particularly American literature. I feel that one can gain a great sense of America and American ideals and values by reading the works of it's great authors.You get a more clear vision of those values and ideals when they are incorporated into some great intriguing story with characters that are both interesting and often brutal in their own individualism and originality.So it should come as no surprise that when the BORDERS bookstore down the street from us announced it was closing and having a huge sale with 50-60% off all books, we were eager to get there. There was still some great stuff left by the time we arrived . I got some great selections, Steinbeck's Burning Bright , Absalom,Absalom! by William Faulkner, and Windblown World , a collection of journals by Jack Kerouac, one of my all-time favorite writers. But as I was on my way to pay for them, out of the corner of my eye I noticed Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun , something I'd been meaning to read ever since I was a teenager and first saw Metallica's legendary music video for One. I snatched the book off the shelf and went and found my wife who only had found one book she wanted. I kinda felt like a jerk with my four books and her with only one but she assured me that that was all she wanted . So we headed for the register and whata ya know, five books for under twenty bucks, great deal!
When I got home and reached into my goodie bag I pulled out Johnny Got His Gun and was surprised to see that the book appeared from it's front and back covers to be an anti-war novel. I'm not sure why I was surprised by this as I had known the basic story-line of the novel since my headbanger days. I now realize that the reason for this has something to do with my own views on war, sacrifice, honor, duty, and service to country. You know, those same ideals we all heard growing up and never quite grasping their true meaning. Some people, myself not included , might equate those same ideals as blind-patriotism and those same people might warn against their danger as being too abstract and meaningless in the face of the horrific consequences of modern warfare (modern meaning post-industrial revolution) and indeed , the apocalyptic death and destruction that the world has borne witness to since the first muskets and cannon started rolling off assembly lines and out factory doors has been startling. Johnny Got His Gun is the story of Joe Bonham , a twenty year old, all American boy next door growing up in turn-of-the-century America who gets drafted into the Army after America enters World War I . While serving on the front lines in France, Joe sustains a direct hit from an artillery shell and suffers horrific injuries, losing both his arms and legs. Joe's face is also horribly disfigured, leaving a gaping hole where is eyes ,ears ,nose, and mouth were once located. Because of this, Joe cannot see, hear, smell , taste, or talk. Despite all that, Joe is kept alive and awakens to a nightmare of being fully conscious but unable, at first, to communicate or even sense the world around him. Joe has trouble distinguishing reality from dreams as he slowly begins to comprehend the extent of his injuries, leaving him to question the justification of his predicament. He is left to wander through memories of his not yet fully developed, twenty year old mind, memories which become very symbolic to the to the over-all themes and moral lessons of the book. Joe becomes embittered by his plight, and his thoughts begin to rail against the injustice of capitalist greed, which he sees as the reasons for the war. The book begins to take on a common anti-war theme of the poor vs the rich and so-on. As the years roll on, Joe begins to make breakthroughs and incredible accomplishments such as learning to tell time and eventually becoming able to communicate through Morse code by tapping his head against his pillow. Through this communication he expresses his wish to live and to travel the world as a sort of circus side-show example of the horrors and moral consequences of modern warfare. He is denied his request as "Against Regulations" and this is where the book ends, leaving the reader with the assumption that the powers that be are afraid to let him out to expose the horror and reality and the evils of capitalist wars.
I found the book to be engaging and very well written. In fact, I finished all 250 some odd pages within a twenty four hour period. A new record for me I think. Trumbo must have done extensive research with disabled veterans before he wrote it. There were many parts of the book where I could relate with Joe Bonham's condition empathically. For instance, when Joe is taking inventory of his injuries and realizes he has lost both his arms, his first thoughts are "How will I work and make a living?", which is the exact thought that first crossed my own mind as I regained consciousness and realized I had lost both my own arms. Another part that struck a chord with me was when Joe describes the " funny prickly feeling" he experiences once, "a kind of fear not like any ordinary fear, a panicky dread" , which describes better than I've ever been able to, the symptoms of a panic attack. There were other instances where I could definitely empathize with the character of Joe Bonham but what I could not relate to and will never relate to is his sense of betrayal.
Admittedly, there are immense differences between the circumstances of my own injuries and those of Joe Bonham. However, as someone who spent 15 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering amongst dozens of combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , who had all suffered from horrible amputations and traumatic brain injuries, I cannot help but feel to be at least somewhat of an authority on the matter. And as this is fact, I cannot say that in all my time there I ever came across anyone who really felt that same sense of betrayal. This may be hard for some of you to believe and perhaps, since my leaving the place, some things may have changed. But in fact, I found the exact opposite to be the case. Many of the brave young men and women that I met while there expressed an eager desire to get better and return to Iraq or Afghanistan and continue there service as soldiers or marines, missing limbs and all. As for myself, I never felt that my injuries were the result of some vast conspiracy by rich white men like Bush and Cheney to make a grab for oil in the middle-east, although many have made similar arguments. My own reasons for joining the military and my own opinions and views on democracy and freedom are far too complex to be assuaged by tired old arguments such as War for Oil or The Rich vs The Poor . The fact of the matter is that we, who serve, do not have time for such debate. We have missions to perform. Rather it is that we leave the matter to you, the citizens, to elect the leaders that will ultimately make the final decisions to send your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers off to war. And should those decisions prove to be folly, well then it is up to those same citizens to throw the bums out! That is why the decision to go to war should never be taken lightly and the consequences should always be weighed carefully. This may sound obvious to most of you but if so, why is it that most anti-war sentiment and protest manifest itself only after wars have already been started? Or more commonly, when they start going badly ( as if they could ever go any other way).
Human beings were designed to be free-thinking individuals. And while it may sound cliche', there is a price to be paid for such freedom. As long as the world is full of independent thinkers, there are bound to be differences and conflict among them. Unfortunately, we have yet to evolve from our primitive instincts to use violence to solve these conflicts. Of course, there are always other age-old reasons and justifications for armed conflicts to arise, but I maintain that at their root, there is always a simple difference of opinion. Until we, as a civilization were to create some Brave New World where human beings are indoctrinated at birth, to think and live a certain way, in unison, and be content with that, things will always be the same. But the prospects of that are more frightening than any war I could ever imagine.
The above image was one of the first complete drawings I created after losing my arms.The accomplishment of re-teaching myself to draw was of paramount importance to my recovery. The drawing was published in the book "Blood Brothers"by journalist and fellow Iraq amputee, Michael Weisskopf. I later presented the original to the president and founder of Homes For Our Troops, John Gonsalves.