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In his novel, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo explores the personal effects of war through the lens of the novel’s protagonist, Joe Bonham. This horrifying novel describes the effects of war quite literally on his body and mind, but in doing so, also society. The first way he does this is through the symbolism of profiteers. He achieves this meaning with a two pronged approach: the medal and the rats. War has winners and losers. The winners are presumably the corporate fat-cats and lobbyists who, ironically enough, fight for the nation to go to war.
The losers are the men like Joe. Joe, like many countries, was torn apart by war. He is not only horribly disfigured, he lacks the means to communicate his agony. Joe is a man ravaged by war, and then they gave him a medal for it. At the beginning of chapter 13, it seems Joe is pleased with himself, but then he wonders if they even know there’s a man hiding in the disfigured body they put it on.
The presentation of the medal represents a fundamental disconnect between the profiteers in charge and the men who fight their wars. Joe is awarded with a medal, the word medal obviously having many connotations. Sure, words like “honor” come to mind, but overwhelmingly one thinks things like “gold,” and “silver.” In short, medals are wealth, and what Joe most certainly does not care about is wealth.
The second symbol–the rats–is a more literal representation.
Joe dreams about a rat that crawls into his bed and starts to eat his wound. The rat symbolizes war profiteers that have no feelings towards the loss of life that the war produces. The rat symbolizes war profiteers because, like the profiteers, the rat also “profits” off the suffering and death of soldiers. The rat wins; the soldiers lose.
The second symbol is also particularly evocative of Trumbo’s depiction of the effects of war on society. Though the novel primarily explores the personal effects of war, it is clear that they are metaphorical representations of the pains of society. For starters, Joe’s ravaged body conjures up much of the devastation felt by Europe following the war. Whereas Joe loses his arms and legs, Europe lost its roads and buildings. Whereas Joe loses his tongue and is unable to communicate, Europe lost its communication infrastructure, and many men in Europe could not communicate with friends and lovers abroad.
But see, Joe fought for liberty, “A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let’s fight for liberty and he can’t show you liberty.” Trumbo condemns war ironically in two ways here, the first way with a personal indictment through the Joe, and the second through society. Joe says he fought for liberty and the motif of liberty is recurring. “did they say i like death better than losing liberty?” It’s clear that Joe like many men fought for liberty. But did he find it? No. Instead he finds himself unable to move, unable to communicate, and a prisoner of his own body. In much the same way, society at large has also lost. The first bit of irony is done through the example. “… he can point to a house to prove it.” The thing is, not only did many men lose their liberty, following the war, many men also lost their houses, and now they have neither theoretically liberty nor real houses. All they have is pain, longing, and the sense that they’ll never recover their lives.
Joe lost everything. He fought for liberty but instead wound up a prisoner in his body. The profiteers won and Joe lost, but Joe was never fighting them. Instead he was fighting for them. These are the personal effects of war: loss, devastation, and alienation. All three of these things are felt by every man touched by war, and likewise, the societies they live in.
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