Dalton Trumbo. Johnny Got His Gun. New York: Bantam Books, 1939. Pp. 243.
Ernst Jünger. Storm of Steel. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1920. Pp 289.
Written in 1938, literally on the eve of the Second World War, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is an unashamedly pacifistic. It tells the story of Joe Bonham, an American soldier in World War I, who suffers a gruesome injury in battle and awakens to find himself unable to see, hear, speak or even move. Completely isolated from human interaction, with no hope of recovery, Bonham exists in his own universe. Trumbo writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, without much concern for sentence structure or grammar. In so doing, Johnny’s readers exist inside Bonham’s head as he transitions seamlessly from sleep to wakefulness, from pleasant memories of youth and then back again to the despondent reality of the present.
The truly hopeless nature of Bonham’s situation is revealed to the reader gradually, as Joe lies in bed taking stock of himself physically. Early in the story Bonham, sizing up his world of silence, realizes that he is deaf. Not long after, it occurs to him that they are amputating his left arm. Incrementally, piece by piece, Trumbo allows us to absorb the totality of Joe’s loss.
Much of the novel follows Joe Bonham’s attempts to communicate by using his one mobile body part, his head, to tap out Morse code messages to his nurses. Joe’s frustration builds as nurse after nurse either ignores his feverish tappings or misinterprets what he is trying to do. Joe’s efforts are finally rewarded when a new nurse begins to care for him, and she recognizes his struggle to communicate.
At this seeming point of triumph, Trumbo plunges the reader back into Bonham’s despair, as Joe’s only request is denied him by the doctor, and the reader must come to terms with the permanent emptiness of Joe Bonham’s life. Once Trumbo has brought the reader to this depressing end, he finishes with a long diatribe against the pointlessness of war, and the right of every individual to refuse his country’s call to arms.
In many ways, Johnny is the story of not just innocence lost, but everything lost. Lost is the power to move, the power to communicate, indeed the power to control one’s own life. Trumbo’s protagonist is a man adrift in his own consciousness, floating helplessly from day to day, unable to influence his existence in even the simplest way. He also uses the symbolism of a man who does not control any aspect of his life as a metaphor for the draftee who fights and sometimes dies without ever choosing to do so.
In the passage that recalls the tender last evening spent by Joe with his lover Kareen, Trumbo presents the reader with the innocence and hopefulness of youth. By mingling sensual images of Joe’s pre-war life with the sensual abyss of his post-war present, Trumbo plays upon the stark contrast to arouse the reader’s pity. During this romantic interlude, we are introduced to Kareen’s father Mike. Mike is portrayed as a hard-nosed, no nonsense Irishman who is sympathetic to the plight of Kareen and Joe, and is cynical about patriotism and the war. Described as “Tough old Mike…grizzled and fierce,” (pg. 34) he is also the antithesis of the stereotypical image of the pacifist. By having this character express doubts about the war and politicians, Trumbo is able to equate refusing to serve with manliness, which overcomes a common objection to pacifism. Mike’s character allows men to refuse military service while still maintaining their masculinity, furthering Trumbo’s message of resistance.
The central theme of Johnny Got His Gun is that all war is inherently evil, and those who decide to wage war are criminals. Through the thoughts of Joe Bonham, Trumbo tells the reader that those who are called to war should resist enlistment as a way to maintain the peace. How the world community should defend weaker states, or how nations are to defend themselves from foreign aggression Trumbo does not say.
In stark contrast to Johnny Got His Gun, Ernst Jünger’s 1920 Storm of Steel is unadorned and straight to the point. His sentences are direct and honest, never attempting to blur the images he records or to attach to them any special meaning. If the book sounds like a diary, it is because much of it started as a diary entry, and this is evident is the strictly chronological telling of the story. The result is a detailed account of individuals, places and events, which gives his words a matter-of-fact quality that distinguishes the diarist from the novelist.
As the book opens, the reader is introduced to Private Ernst Jünger of the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers, who is detraining at Bazancourt, France in late 1914. For the next 289 pages, the reader will follow at the heels of the young private as he moves across France and Belgium (making an occasional recuperative stop in Germany), running through trenches, dashing across “no man’s land” and just generally living the soldier’s life in the First World War. After four years of fighting, Jünger has survived dozens of engagements and risen to the rank of captain.
Much of the “soldier’s life” is unpleasant, and interspersed with such mundane tidbits as the finer points of rat-hunting at the front are horrible accounts such as that of Lance-Corporal Motullo, shot in the head and yet living while “his brains were dribbling down past his chin” (pg. 212). Almost every chapter contains a variety of such instances, as one might expect in war. What is characteristic of Jünger’s telling is that he makes no judgments on the war, he sheds few tears for his comrades, and he bears no real hatred for his enemy. He presents war as he sees it, a panorama of light and sound, of death and near misses. For Jünger, the war is a candle in a damp basement, a leaky dugout and a universe of battle.
For most of Storm of Steel, Jünger maintains a lively faith in the ultimate victory of Germany. He sees the courage and skill of his comrades and does not doubt that they will share in the defeat of the Western Powers. It is only as he recuperates in Germany after the Ludendorff Offensive of 1918 that, having read foreign newspaper accounts of the front, he allows for the possibility that the war may be lost. As the war nears its end, the often decorated and often wounded Jünger receives the Pour le Mérite (often called The Blue Max), his nation’s highest military honor. Characteristically, Jünger receives it without comment.
In Storm of Steel, Jünger shows no particular flair for storytelling. His writing is like a sparsely decorated apartment: all of the essential elements are present, but there’s nothing much to add color to the view. Adjectives are used sparingly, and commentary on the significance of events is kept to a minimum. The events he records are connected only by his presence. There’s no real theme to the work, and there’s certainly no message or moral that might be drawn. What we’re left with is rather like being able to access the memory of a war veteran by way of an endless series of images, unedited and unimproved.
What is telling regarding Jünger’s record is its truly personal nature. While we students of the Great War study the movements of vast numbers of men, often focusing on groups no smaller than a division, the soldier lives in close contact with a handful of men, rushing from one undistinguished dot on a map to another. For the student, there is a Battle of the Somme, and there are waves of men suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties. For people like Ernst Jünger, who lived through the event, the Battle of the Somme is a chlorine gas attack at Monchy, a confused, unsuccessful trench raid in the middle of an inky black night, and the smell of corpses at Combles.
Throughout Storm of Steel, one thing becomes clear: Jünger is a soldier. That is the purpose of his life and he does what he does because it is who he is. He himself does not seem to be aware of this “inner purpose and form of my life” until he lay wounded in a trench in the war’s closing months (pg. 281). Jünger is not a thinker, but if he argues anything, it is that the war is a noble, just cause and that an honorable soldier has no compunction in doing his duty. Jünger is an honorable soldier.
The messages of Johnny Got His Gun and Storm of Steel could not be more different, and their authors could not be more divergent in the ways in which they tell their stories. Trumbo presents war as a senseless waste of humanity, designed by deluded politicians defending outdated ideologies. Jünger reveals war in all of its tedium and all of its barbarity, but only concerns himself with fulfilling his duty to his country, and leaves others to anguish over the costs. For Jünger, war is the stuff of daily life, not a philosophical debate. The varying method of storytelling is indicative of the different approaches: Where Trumbo’s imagery spins and whirls from one disjointed scene to the next, Jünger follows a rigid timeline and logical patterns of events. In Jünger’s world, everything is orderly; everything makes sense. In Trumbo’s world, nothing makes sense, not even the coming of dawn.
That is why the underlying similarity between the two books takes the reader with such surprise. At the end of the day, both of the protagonists in the books share a myopic view of the world; they exist in the constricted space immediately around them, while great movements and events take place just outside their field of vision. Both Joe Bonham and Ernst Jünger struggle to adjust in the midst of confusion, trapped in a world they did not create but hope to escape and yet never do. In their own ways, both live in a world of shadow and darkness, stumbling from one hellish nightmare to the next, never completely sure of when the end might come.