The last three pages of a book have the power to eclipse all of the preceding ones. I hate that this is true, and I hate even more that ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ fell victim to it, because the book is beautiful and exquisitely heart-breaking. Pages one through two hundred forty-one are among the best I have ever read.
The entire book takes place in Joe Bonham’s mind. After the war leaves him blind, deaf, and limbless, he lays in a hospital bed doing the only thing he can: think. The reader follows him as he remembers and rails impotently against the trap his body has become.
‘Johnny Got His Gun’ is famous for being an anti-war novel, and it’s a rare example of a protest novel done the right way. Joe Bonham’s suffering is the protest; there is no whisper of sanctimoniousness from the author. Maybe that’s what makes the inescapable contradiction in the last two pages so puzzling.
Halfway through the book, Joe muses, “If you agree to fight you agree to die. Now if you die to protect your life you aren’t alive anyhow so how is there any sense in a thing like that? A man doesn’t say I will starve myself to death to keep from starving. He doesn’t say I will spend all my money in order to save my money. He doesn’t say I will burn my house down in order to keep it from burning. Why then should he be willing to die for the privilege of living? There ought to be at least as much common sense about living and dying as there is about going to the grocery store and buying a loaf of bread.” At the end, he concludes, “If you make a war if there are guns to be aimed if there are bullets to be fired if there are men to be killed they will not be us….It will be you— you who urge us on to battle.” I agree that the people initiating the wars are the enemy and not the guys in different uniforms, but to turn guns on them is to become them. To fight war with war only perpetuates the problem.
If you read ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ you will be deeply moved and you will think. I’m still thinking. The last thing I want to do is get caught up in minutiae and take away from the fact that the book as a whole is brilliant, but that ending is a problem for me. War is a problem to which the solution is not “more war.” This isn’t trivial— it’s a life-or-death issue that Earthlings all through history haven’t gotten right yet. We all want to live in peace. It’s time to get some perspective, grow up, and put our guns down.