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Fails to Make Its Point Convincingly
on 30 April 2008
This book chronicles the intermittent dreams and growing consciousness of a young man who wakes up in an army hospital and gradually becomes conscious enough to realize that he's been ripped apart by a bomb: a quadripelegic who has also lost his sight and hearing. The weight of the story is his recollections of his very idyllic life before he went to war.
A popular review of this book remarks that it was kept obscure for several years because it was introduced just as the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Obviously, in an era when the Poles had to fight to protect themselves from the open pillaging of their country (which the Nazis carried out in short order), this book's flaws would become too apparent.
Like any argument that rests upon a rare extremity of evidence, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN fails in its logic. In Poland 1939, men and women who did not go to war were reduced to smoking hulks of flesh simply because they were Jewish or epileptic or dissidents. So Trumbo's argument falls flat. Men who take up the gun may suffer catastrophically, but men who do not take up the gun may also suffer catastrophically.
Another flaw is that a lot of Trumbo's argument is not really against WAR, but is against WARTIME PROPAGANDA. He swaps the two concepts and really batters the straw man of propaganda without ever discussing war itself.
At the end of the book, the reader still has a question unanswered: Is it ever right for a person to pick up a gun and fire at an advancing aggressor? Because that's what war is. And that question is never answered. In the end, partly owing to how very idyllic the young man's life was before he went to war, unrealistically so, and partly because the author seems to confuse Wartime propaganda with War itself, I think the story is tedious, predictable, skewed, and too overtly propagandistic.