Johnny got his gun

by Dalton Trumbo

Paper Book, 2007





New York : Citadel Press, c2007.


After a shell leaves his body mangled on the final day of World War I, young Joe Bonham lies trapped in a hospital bed. He is a fully conscious quadruple amputee who cannot speak, hear or see. He is left to wander within his own mind and goes between his harsh reality and memories of a happier life long gone. Delve into the mind of a man lost somewhere on the edges of sanity and insanity, life and death.

Media reviews

New York Times
"There can be no question of the effectiveness of this book." "Mr. Trumbo sets this story down almost without pause or punctuation and without a fury amounting eloquence."

User reviews

LibraryThing member weird_O
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Joe Bonham is a wounded veteran of World War I. [Johnny Got His Gun] is his story.

Joe was born to Bill and Margie Bonham in Shale City, Colorado, and he lived there with his family through his teenage years. He liked camping and fishing with his father. His life was largely uneventful. In high school, he had a girl friend named Diane. His best friend, Bill Harper, tattled on Diane for dating Glen Hogan, when she also cheated on Joe by dating Harper. After Joe's father died, he moved with his mother and two younger sisters to Los Angeles. He got a job in a vast bread bakery, and he found a new love named Kareen. They intend to wed, but their plans are disrupted when Joe is drafted as the U.S. enters the Great War in Europe.

As the novel opens, Joe is feeling unwell, really sick, and he is irritated by the ringing of a distant telephone that no one will answer. Is he hung over? You can't drink enough of that French wine to get THIS hung over, he thinks. Then he recognizes the roaring of the bread ovens and the mechanical noises of the conveyors. He walks past dollies and other equipment to the phone. It is his mother; he must come home because his father's died. His supervisor directs a delivery driver to take him home, and he arrives in time to witness morgue workers carrying his father's body away.

"That's not Bill," he mother tells him. "It may seem like it, but it's not." Bill had died in Colorado several years before, of course. And Joe wonders "why couldn't the goddam phone stop ringing?" He feels things getting "floaty and sticky."

He drifted again. He was hurt. He was bad hurt. The bell was fading. He was dreaming. He wasn't dreaming. He was awake even though he couldn't see. He was awake even though he couldn't hear a thing except a telephone that really wasn't ringing. He was mighty scared.

He remembers reading The Last Days of Pompeii and having nightmares of being entombed by his blankets, dreaming them to be lava. He has that same feeling now and tries to claw his way out of loose ground. And excruciating pain engulfs him. He sweats and the sweat makes him aware of bandages that cover every part of him. Even his head. He's suddenly aware that he can't hear his pulse, though his heart is pounding.

Oh god then he was deaf. Where did they get that stuff about bombproof dugouts when a man in one of them could be hit so hard that the whole complicated business of his ears could be blown away leaving him deaf so deaf he couldn't hear his own heart beat? He had been hit and he had been hit bad and now he was deaf. Not just a little deaf. Not just halfway deaf. He was stone deaf…
So he'd never hear again. Well there were a hell of a lot of things he didn't want to hear again. He never wanted to hear the biting little castanet sound of a machine gun or the high whistle of a .75 coming down fast or the slow thunder as it hit or the whine of an airplane overhead or the yells of a guy trying to explain to somebody that he's got a bullet in his belly and that his breakfast is coming out through the front of him and why won't somebody stop going forward and give him a hand only nobody can hear him they're so scared themselves. The hell with it.

Chapter I draws to a close.

The novel alternates chapters set in Joe's past—experiences in Colorado, his work in the bakery—with those in his isolated present. It is all in what's left of his head, as he recalls his past and contemplates his future, as he struggles to break out of his isolation. He has nightmares, daymares, anytime-mares. He hallucinates of his last hour with his love, Kareen.

"Joe dear darling Joe hold me closer. Drop your bag and put both of your arms around me and hold me tightly. Put both of your arms around me. Both of them."
You in both of my arms Kareen goodbye. Both of my arms. Kareen in my arms. Both of them. Arms arms arms arms. I'm fainting in and out all the time Kareen and I'm not catching on quick. You are in my arms Kareen. You in both of my arms. Both of my arms. Both of them. Both
I haven't got any arms Kareen.
My arms are gone.
Both of my arms are gone Kareen both of them
They're gone.
Kareen Kareen Kareen.
They've cut my arms off both of my arms.
Oh Jesus mother god Kareen they've cut off both of them.
Oh Jesus mother god Kareen Kareen Kareen my arms.

As best he can, he inventories his body and its conventional parts.

It was a process of feeling with his skin of exploring with something that couldn't move where his mind told it to. The nerves and muscles of his face were crawling like snakes toward his forehead.
The hole began at the base of his throat just below where his jaw should be and went upward in a widening circle. He could feel his skin creeping around the rim of the circle. The hole was getting bigger and bigger. It widened out almost to the base of his ears if he had any and then narrowed again. It ended somewhere above the top of what used to be his nose.
The hole went too high to have any eyes in it.
He was blind.

Calm and mentally quiet, he continues, feeling "just like a storekeeper taking spring inventory… He had no legs and no arms and no eyes and no ears and no nose and no mouth and no tongue." His biology teacher comes to Joe's mind. He had chunks of cartilage that "didn't have anything except life so they grew on chemicals." But Joe was "one up on the cartilage. He had a mind and it was thinking."

He thought here you are Joe Bonham lying like a side of beef all the rest of your life and for what? Somebody tapped you on the shoulder and said come along son we're going to war. So you went. But why?

Joe thinks about those dangerous concept words: Liberty. Freedom. Honor. Decency.

You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else's life…They sound wonderful. Death before dishonor. This ground sanctified by blood. These men who died so gloriously. They shall not have died in vain. Our noble dead.

All the while, Joe Bonham is trying to figure out a way to communicate with anyone other than himself. He is a part of nurses' routines. He can't tell daylight from night, but he eventually recognizes a regular day nurse from her routine, her touch, the particular vibration of the floor as she moves about the room. Night nurses seem to change regularly. He roughly calculates time and day from the schedule of his care. He is bathed and his bedding is changed every two days. The routine of changing his feeding tube and bodily discharges contribute to his perception of time. He always thinking, always planning. And by the book's end, he can communicate.

So that's Joe's story. Do you still want to put your boots on the ground in the Middle East?
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“Now I lay me down to sleep my bomb proof cellar's good and deep but if i'm killed before I wake remember god it's for your sake amen.”

Wow, what can I say about this book? Thought provoking? Yep. Harrowing? Yep. Disturbing? Yep. Intriguing? Oh yeah and then some.

This book features a young man Joe Bonham, conscripted to fight in the trenches of WWI only to be horrifically injured in a shell blast. Joe wakes up initially to find that he is deaf but then realises that his injuries stretch much farther than that as it turns out that he has lost all his senses bar one, thought, so he finds himself trapped with only his thoughts and memories for company. Now this book is seen as anti-war and is certainly that with tales of conscripts sent to fight others' battles but this book is more than that, it is also about being part of a larger humanity and what happens to us if we are cut off from it. A desperation to belong.

Many people will argue that this book is now out-dated and as most countries no longer have conscription they are right to a certain point but the fact is even today whilst most armies are made up of volunteers and professionals, wars are still fought by the little people not by the elite. What has changed is that modern warfare means that weapons are able to be fired at vast distances at largely unseen enemies but the fact remains that there is still someone on the receiving end of them likely to be killed, injured or their lives irrevocably changed forever usually detrimentally. The fact is that medical advances means that more and more people are surviving and living with horrific injuries than ever before as can be witnessed whenever we put on our TVs. In that way this book is stiil as relevant now as when it was first published,in 1939.

This book also challenges many of the norms we ascribe to in a so called civilised society that are too complex to go into in any great detail. However, there are also some very subtle touches of comedy which periodically lift the gloom
An interesting thing to note, and I feel that this is a touch of genius by Trumbo, is that throughout the book there is no punctuation other than full stops. This means that the book reads as a single stream of thought. Now this was not at first initially obvious to me but as I got further and further into the book this struck me as a brilliant ploy.

Go out and read this book. Whether you enjoy or hate it I almost guarantee that it will at least get you thinking about just what it means to be 'human'.
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LibraryThing member Saretta.L
Johnny prese il fucile e andò in guerra, quale poco importa, Johnny tornò dalla guerra, ma il suo corpo no.
Il romanzo è un lungo monologo diviso in due sezioni: i morti e i vivi. Durante il monologo si assiste all'acquisizione di consapevolezza dello stato da parte di Johnny che lentamente si rende conto di non avere più braccia e gambe e di aver perso tutti i sensi che lo collegano con l'esterno.
Nel corso del romanzo, passando dai morti ai vivi, Johnny riprende lentamente contatto con l'esterno e ritornando quindi man mano alla vita.
E' un romanzo molto incisivo, sia per i contenuti drammatici che per lo stile con cui li trasmette al lettore; il pensiero di Johnny scorre con pochissima punteggiatura e molte ripetizioni, accentuando l'angosciante desiderio di comunicazione del protagonista.
Non è una lettura semplice, ma è una lettura da fare.


Johnny got his gun and went to war, it does not matter which one, Johnny came back but without his body.
The novel is a monologue divided in two parts: the death and the living ones. During the monologue Johnny increases his consciousness about his status; slowly he understands that he does not have any more arms or legs and to have lost all of his senses and the connections with the outer world.
During the novel, going from the death to the living, Johnny regains contact with the outer world and comes back to the living ones.
The novel is keen, both for its dramatic contents both for the narrative style almost without punctuation and with lots of words repetition, stressing the protagonist desire for communication with other human beings.
It is not a easy read, but it is a must read one.
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LibraryThing member sggottlieb
I had not gotten around to reading this classic. i knew it would be powerful and intense and avoided it for lighter reads. Finally read the Kindle version and it had a profound effect on me. Beautifully written with a feel of Steinbeck. Excellent imagery and character development. Compelling pace.
LibraryThing member LauGal
I agree with Lisa B. I read this book 31 yrs ago and it still haunts me.This book makes you think and re-evaluate your own thoughts and opinions. You may or may not change those opinions but this book will touch you.I do feel this is a must read for all teens.
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
A sad, poignant anti-war novel like no other, it is also one of the most powerful. The movie is pretty good too. Responsible for getting Dalton Trumbo put on the black list during the McCarthy era.
LibraryThing member enemyanniemae
This is one of the most powerful books I have read in a long time. It is the ultimate in indictment of war as it affects the common draftee. Having just finished the audio version of Trumbo by Bruce Cook, I decided that Johnny was a book I could not and should not miss. Well written, it deals with one of the most horrible aspects of war that you can possibly imagine. To say that I enjoyed it is not accurate in the least. This is not a book to be enjoyed. But it is a story that needs to be told over and over again and to anyone and everyone who will listen or read. It is horrifying and touching and nostalgic and claustrophobic and sad beyond measure and enraging. And it is a timeless message.… (more)
LibraryThing member flydodofly
Although the time in the novel is 1918, it could have been happening anywhere, anytime. It is truly tragic and honest and open and curious and brave, and very very sad, of course. We people do strange things, and one of the strangest and the most horrible ones are the wars, which are, literally, as necessary as a hole in one's head. This book is an outcry of pain and suffering, and the fact that the character cannot even perform this outcry mirrors the terrible logic of the war. His helplessness, and his lost future are caused by things and people he has nothng to do with and the realisation of this non-sense is almost even more painful than suffering caused by his actual wounds. As so often, I would suggest this book to be read at schools, as a part of ethics or similar classes.… (more)
LibraryThing member Elpaca
Having watched first hand as my brother tried to recover his life after serving in Vietnam, this book solidified my opinions towards using men simply as fodder for cannons. This book still haunts me today.
LibraryThing member klburnside
This was a very good book. A lot of it was very painful to read. I loved Johnny's reflections on war and the things soldiers are asked to die for in war. I really liked the idea of how you can never ask a dead soldier if it was worth dying for. It's hard to say much about the book, but I would definitely recommend it to everyone. It's a quick read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ErixWorx
One of my 5 modern anti-war classics. Simply amazing. Every time I read it, it leaves me stunned. They made a movie based on it, and Metallica based the song 'One' on the film.
LibraryThing member eysman
i read reviews here of persons who found it shattering beyond words. i wrote about it in my school paper column endlessly. i am so glad its impact has not lessened one bit. the blistering concept, how Trumbo did it,, and man you never forget joe bonham . Those are stunning from from the bones reviews. i cannot add to them.. tell the world. "you point the way, you masters of men, and we will point the guns." God.Oh god.… (more)
LibraryThing member misrae
the most intense book i have ever read
LibraryThing member amymyoung
It takes a while to get used to the stream of conciousness style of the book, but once you do, it flows quite well.
LibraryThing member kwohlrob
At the end of Johnny Got His Gun there is a fantastic line uttered by the protagonist that sums up the entire experience of reading the novel:

“That would be a great thing to concentrate war in one stump of a body and to show it to people so they could see the difference between a war that’s in newspaper headlines and liberty loan drives and a war that is fought lonesomely in the mud somewhere a war between a man and a high explosive shell.”

Dalton Trumbo’s greatest triumph with Johnny Got His Gun was boiling the entire anti-war argument of the novel into that single horror: an armless, legless, faceless, eyeless, voiceless casualty screaming at you for mercy. If you favor military action in any form, can you justify the victories in the loss of life and limbs?

Needless to say, Johnny Got His Gun still resonates so effectively today as it did when it was first published in 1939. Look at any photographs of Iraq war veterans with severed limbs and the same question still confronts you: is the war worth the cost? It is that focus that keeps the novel from drifting into long-winded speeches or diatribes. Because we never see the world outside of Joe’s mind, we are trapped in the argument of “Why? Was it all worth this?” Therefore, the novel never feels preachy. Nor does the anti-war argument grow dated -– because it is not rooted in World War I (where the action takes place), or World War II (which the novel was released just prior to), but in the moral argument against war itself.

Trumbo also does a superb job of making Johnny Got His Gun a “small novel.” It is not trying to encompass all the horrors of war, but just this one soul-wrenching example. You cannot help but cringe along with Joe when he feels a rat gnawing at the side of his body as he lies helpless on the hospital bed, unable to swat it away. As the reader, you share Joe’s isolation and helplessness.

And yet, from this horror, Trumbo is even able to bring forth great humor. Take the scene of Christ playing cards with the soon-to-be-dead soldiers. He performs a minor miracle by making full whiskey glasses appear beneath each player (a sort of mock of the water-into-wine trick), but then winds up losing a hand of blackjack (“I never could hit a twelve he said in a complaining voice”).

Throughout it all, Trumbo never lets you off the hook. You must look at Joe and see his fate. To look away (or stop reading in this case) is to deny the realities of war and its ultimate cost.

Without giving away the ending, the book outdoes the movie (which Trumbo himself directed) in that it doesn’t over-argue the point. The sad resolution is not discussed as a great moral quandary, but rather a matter of regulations. Ultimately, the army’s regulations turn a blind eye to the truth that lies before them.
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LibraryThing member jimrob
A chilling tale of a man horribly maimed in war, kept alive as part of a cruel science experiment by the military. Perhaps one of the most famous (and graphic) anti-war novels of the 20th century. Don't allow that to deter you, not that it should. Beneath the political overtones is a startling and gripping story from the fantasy, horror, and science-fiction genres.… (more)
LibraryThing member NolHol
Written as an extreme anti-war sentiment, Johnny Got His Gun is a shocking story that can open up many an eye. The novel details the story of a World War I casualty who suffered a severe injury from a land mine that left him without arms, legs, or even a face. It goes in depth into the thoughts in the soldier's head has he recalls memories from the past, and thoughts from his current position. Unable to communicate or feel anything, the main character struggles to find a grip on himself. The basis for the 80's metal hit "One" by Metallica, Johnny Got His Gun has had influence people for different generations of war. A dark and depressing tale at best, Johnny Got His Gun is a necessary read for all who can stomach it.… (more)
LibraryThing member johnjobrien
One of the most powerful anti-war books I have ever read.
LibraryThing member blake.rosser
Impressive that a story that takes place entirely in the head of a limbless, faceless deaf mute could be as engaging as it was. The ending is hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.
LibraryThing member uselessbeauty
Heart wrenching story about the human concequences of war.
LibraryThing member michellelliott
One of the more awesome books I've ever read.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Trumbo was blacklisted as a writer because of his anti-war leanings; reading this, it's amazing how far civilisation has come in the last fifty years, and simultaneously we haven't budged an inch.

"Johnny" is a terribly sad tale of a boy sent off to war, who comes home mangled and destroyed, blind, deaf, a remnant of a human being. When he finally learns how to communicate with those around him, it transpires that what he most wants to say, nobody wants to hear. Extremely sad.… (more)
LibraryThing member rgruberhighschool
National Book Award Winner RGG: Horrific, traumatic first-person recounting by an American WWI soldier who suffers devastating injuries. Beyond the insanity of what has happened to him is the triumph of the human spirit.
LibraryThing member tloeffler
One of the most powerful books I have read about World War I.
LibraryThing member tloeffler
One of the most powerful books I have read about World War I.


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