Cover of Johnny Got His Gun. Doughboy stands in front of giant hand flashing the peace sign.

About the Book

Title: Johnny Got His Gun
Published: 1939

Cover Story: 1918-1971
Drinking Buddy:
Let’s Meet at Your Place
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 (combat sequences, sexuality, psychological horror)
Talky Talk:
I Have No Mouth…
Bonus Factors:
Medical Ethics, Derivative Works
Bromance Status:
-.- .. .-.. .-..     — .

Cover Story: 1918-1971

A book about World War I, written just before World War II, with Vietnam-area iconography. Groovy. Far out. The cat’s meow.

The Deal:

Young Joe Bonham buys into the whole patriotic glory thing and serves in the Great War. Unfortunately, he grapples with an artillery shell and comes in second.

When he wakes up in the hospital he has to deal with a devastating loss: both his legs are gone. He’ll never walk again.

Oh, and he lost both his arms at the shoulders. And he’s blind. And deaf. And lost his jaw, tongue, and nose.

As he lays there in his bed, with a tube in his stomach and another down his throat, the horrible truth dawns on him: the only part of Joe that survived is his mind. His perfectly intact, completely-aware mind. Trapped in his skull forever.

Things go downhill from there.

Drinking Buddy: Let’s Meet at Your Place

stock photo of a hospital IV bag

Joe isn’t what you call the world’s most exciting companion. Even when he realizes he can communicate by tapping out messages in Morse code with his neck, his conversation is usually only about one subject. And I wouldn’t be comfortable disconnecting his air hose for him.

Testosterone Level: Internal Monologue

Joe doesn’t remember much about the battle and it takes him a while to fully realize his situation. As the months and, eventually, the years go by, Joe passes the time by remembering his family, old girlfriends, and past jobs. He goes over his multiplication tables and spends most of 1920 trying to figure out if it’s daytime or night. This does make for somewhat tedious reading at times.

Talky Talk: I Have No Mouth

The phrase ‘Johnny get your gun’ was a rallying cry to get young men to enlist, once up on a time.

Joe comes to the obvious conclusion that war is not all it’s cracked up to be and that maybe medical technology has reached a morally ambiguous level. Unfortunately, there’s no one he can really discuss this with, as he slowly descends into madness.

When World War II broke out, the publishers suspended printing this book until after the war, fearing its pacifist message was inappropriate for the time. When people wrote to Trumbo asking for copies, he snitched them out to the FBI, a decision he later regretted. Trumbo, a well-known Hollywood screenwriter, was blacklisted in the 1950s for Communist leanings and served a  year in prison for refusing to testify against others.

Bonus Factor: Medical Ethics

Cover of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, featuring the Hollywood-style monster

World War I was the first war where you could be terribly wounded and expect to survive. Surgery, antiseptic conditions, and modern prosthetics ensured that damage that would have killed a Civil War soldier would only leave a doughboy horribly maimed.

The irony of this is not lost on Joe, who realizes that in more primitive times he wouldn’t be suffering this way. He’d like to have have a word with his doctors, but all his teeth are in a bowl somewhere.

Even with his Morse code trick, the military officers only tap out the same message onto his forehead: WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS. WHO ARE YOU?

Bonus Factor: Derivative Work

Clip from the movie, Johnny Got his gun. Three black and white figures in old timey surgical masks look down at a patient

Trumbo directed a movie version of this book in 1971. This was a little more racy than the novel, with a sympathetic nurse realizing that Joe still has one functioning member left, and trying to give him a ‘hand’ at feeling pleasure again.

Cover of Metallica's single 'One', featuring a bandaged skull

In 1988, Metallica used the movie and book as the basis for their awesome video “One”. Set in more modern times, it still deals with a soldier stripped of everything but his mind. My high school friends and I were so impressed by this song, we were sure it was based on an actual incident.

Also, if you’re in the mood, there’s this weird-ass online video game where you can play Joe after the accident.

Bromance Status: -.- .. .-.. .-..     — .

While you certainly made me think, I prefer more lighthearted war books, like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five. I’ll just leave you here on the shelf. Forever.

FTC Full disclosure: I received no money for writing this review, as this book was published over seventy-five years ago and I think they’ve stopped promoting it.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.