Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Johnny Got His Gun Study Guide." Course Hero. 1 Mar. 2019. Web. 1 Oct. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2019, March 1). Johnny Got His Gun Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved October 1, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "Johnny Got His Gun Study Guide." March 1, 2019. Accessed October 1, 2023.


Course Hero, "Johnny Got His Gun Study Guide," March 1, 2019, accessed October 1, 2023,

Johnny Got His Gun | Context


World War I Fiction

World War I, also called the Great War, was fought mainly in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918. It was the first war in which poison gas, especially mustard gas, was used to kill opposing troops, and it cost the lives of more than 9 million fighting men. World War I was a trench war, with soldiers often living mired in mud in trenches dug into the earth. Soldiers scrambled up and out of trenches, going "over the top," to attack the enemy in front of them. Running directly into enemy fire led to enormous casualties among soldiers. The hardships of the trench, frequent round-the-clock bombardments sometimes lasting for weeks on end, and the high casualty rate took a heavy physical and psychological toll on many soldiers.

World War I fiction includes novels about the war itself set on the front lines or in the vicinity of the battlefield. Novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), by Erich Maria Remarque, and A Farewell to Arms (1929), by Ernest Hemingway, fall into this category.

Some historical fiction based on World War I uses the war as a backdrop. The characters may have been in the war, but they're no longer on the front lines. These novels often explore war's effects on those who fought and the difficulties they face reintegrating into normal, civilian life. Novels in this genre include Pat Barker's Regeneration (1991), which reveals the psychic trauma of war among soldiers being treated in a military hospital. Focusing on World War I's devastating effects on one soldier, Johnny Got His Gun falls into this category because it illuminates the author's point of view about war and peace. This novel is set in a hospital, and its main character has been out of the war for years, but its effects have not waned.

Wartime Propaganda

Propaganda refers to any persuasive form of communication. In the context of World War I, propaganda included the manipulation of patriotic symbols to create a specific attitude or action among the public. Nationalistic and militaristic songs, posters, and appeals to duty and love of country were all part of the American culture during World War I. In Johnny Got His Gun, Joe rages against the empty words and slogans warmongers use to lure naïve young men into the fight. Propagandistic words and slogans include calls to "make the world safe for democracy" and to fight for "freedom," "honor," "liberty," and other abstractions that serve to make the lure of war seem irresistible.

President Woodrow Wilson, who held office from 1913 to 1921, used the propaganda machine to turn an isolationist nation into one whose citizens were enthusiastic about joining the European war. In 1917 Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to increase public support for the war effort. The CPI used sophisticated psychological and advertising techniques to achieve its goal. Employing psychology, art, and the media in its efforts, it produced thousands of pro-war press releases, ads, articles, and other materials. Some of the most popular writers and novelists of the day were hired to write feature stories about the glories of war. The CPI's Division of Pictorial Publicity created and distributed numerous patriotic posters aimed at encouraging enlistment in the armed forces or general public support for the war. The CPI Division of Films supported flag-waving patriotic movies that depicted fighting as a glorious and honorable experience.

The CPI was also empowered to censor all anti-war articles, art, or other public information. The excuse for this anti-democratic, unconstitutional power was that the CPI was preventing German propaganda from influencing American public opinion. As a result of its censorship efforts, nearly all radical, left-wing, or anti-war publications were put out of business. Only one message was communicated to the public, and its purpose was to elicit patriotic fervor in support of the war.

In Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo depicts this propaganda as a series of vicious lies. Joe Bonham's body represents the true experience of war—an experience the pro-war machine would keep from the public at any cost.


Author Dalton Trumbo and Johnny Got His Gun's protagonist, Joe Bonham, are pacifists, at least in some sense. Pacifism is opposition to war and killing and unswerving dedication to peace. However, the concept is more complicated than it seems at first glance. Pacifism has always been a thorny issue, debated by political scientists and philosophers alike. Wars take many forms and are fought for many reasons, leading some people to believe in the idea of a "just" war—one with a cause so morally correct it is worth killing for. Pacifism, therefore, may be thought of as a principle existing on a continuum, from absolutist to conditional. The main types of pacifism are discussed below.

Absolute pacifism is the belief that war is always wrong, no matter what its cause or desired outcome might be. For the absolute pacifist, violence or killing cannot be excused under any circumstances, including self-defense or defense of innocent people under grave threat. Some absolute pacifists believe death has more spiritual value than killing. For example, many Buddhist traditions embrace an absolute prohibition on killing any living thing, which undoubtedly includes the slaughter of war.

Conditional pacifism acknowledges there may be times when war and killing are necessary and justifiable. For example, if innocents are under threat of death, a conditional pacifist may agree war is necessary to prevent their slaughter. Conditional pacifists may believe there is a moral duty to protect the innocent against unprovoked aggression and violence.

One form of conditional pacifism is utilitarian pacifism. Utilitarian pacifists may believe war is justified if it yields the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Wars fought in self-defense or to prevent genocide usually fall into this category. Nonviolent resistance, such as that practiced and espoused by American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), is another type of conditional pacifism. Nonviolent resisters never initiate violent action and refuse to react with violence even when violence is committed against them.

Pacifist conscientious objectors refuse to go to war because they believe a war is unjust. They may be jailed for their refusal or may agree to serve in the war as a medical orderly or in another noncombat role.

What type of pacifism does Johnny Got His Gun promote? It might seem as if Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is an advocate of absolute pacifism. But his pacifism is tied to the lies and propaganda fed to the public to promote war. The novel gives no indication Joe would reject a just war. Conditional pacifists might support a war to defend themselves or to prevent genocide, for example. Dalton Trumbo was a pacifist, but his pacifism arose mainly from class consciousness. He believed it was always the workers who were asked to die for a cause benefiting the rich and powerful. There is no evidence Trumbo would oppose a war in which the working classes were called upon to defend themselves or large numbers of working-class people under dire threat of violence. Ultimately it's up to the reader to determine the type of pacifism Trumbo promotes in the novel.

Omission of Punctuation

Johnny Got His Gun is a narrative based on the nonsequential memories occupying the mind of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who was grievously injured fighting in World War I. Throughout the novel Joe remains helpless in a hospital bed. During the war he lost all his limbs and most of his face, leaving him unable to see, hear, speak, smell, or taste. To convey his stream-of-consciousness thought processes, the author omits much conventional punctuation. The ends of sentences are generally punctuated, but the flow of thoughts within sentences often is not.
Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Johnny Got His Gun? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!