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Johnny Got His Gun | Themes

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The Big Guys and the Little Guys

In discussing or describing war, particularly World War I, Joe distinguishes between "big" guys and "little" guys. The "big" guys start, continue, promote, and profit from warfare. The "little" guys fight and die in the wars the "big" guys support.

The "big" guys are politicians, military leaders, heads of corporations, and anyone else who is rich, powerful, and influential. They are the capitalists and warmongers who benefit in one way or another from warfare.

The "little" guys are ordinary working-class and lower-middle-class people who are either drafted or conned into enlisting in the military by propaganda, lies, or appeals to mindless patriotism. They are the "cannon fodder" who are grievously wounded or killed so that the "big" guys may profit.

The novel portrays doctors as among the "big" guys, who are inhumane and self-congratulatory. The doctors keep Joe's carcass alive, but they care nothing about Joe because he's a "little" guy. They never consider what it must be like to live inside that carcass. At the end of novel, the man who answers Joe (likely a doctor) extinguishes Joe's attempts to communicate through Morse code. This man—and, the book implies, the medical profession and the world at large—must keep Joe, the "little" guy, incommunicado so he cannot show the world the horrors war inflicts. The man is complicit with the warmongers who want to keep the "little" guys in the dark about the true nature of war.

Life versus Living

Johnny Got His Gun examines the difference between being alive and having a life. Joe is living because his heart beats and the cells in what's left of his body still function. But in its present condition Joe's body deprives him of almost all experience. The cells in a functioning brain may generate thoughts, memories, and dreams. Yet memories and dreams are not a life. Joe's entrapment in his truncated body makes him wish for death to free him from his waking nightmare. The novel asks the question: Is such a life worth living, and if it is, what makes it worth living?

Joe begins to value his life when he learns he can use his remaining sense of touch to experience some connection to the outside world. The title of Book 2, "The Living," bears this idea out. When he realizes he can tap his head and communicate in Morse code, he views communication as the essence of living and of being human. The frustration of his attempts to communicate—to make some sense out of his injuries by bearing witness to the horrific consequences of war— is the book's last instance of irony. Whether the irony is situational—showing the difference between what readers may expect and what really happens—or dramatic, when the audience knows more than the main character, is up to the reader to determine.

Propaganda

The warmongers who support the war use meaningless propaganda to lure inexperienced and naive young men into joining the military to fight and die, transforming their youth into cannon fodder. Their propaganda is just empty words; what it achieves is all too real.

Joe dwells on propaganda throughout the novel. In Chapter 3 he links the memories of the patriotic flags and songs at the train station as he left for war to the abstraction of notions of liberty and freedom. In Chapter 10 he thinks, "Whose native land is it after you're dead?" War, he realizes, benefits only those who are behind the propaganda machine: those in government and business who profit from war. In Chapter 18, with his frantic tapping, he conveys a whole fantasy about being a display that, in essence, will counteract all the war propaganda. Of course, since propaganda feeds an entrenched bureaucracy, his fantasy will never be realized.

Capitalism as Success

Johnny Got His Gun condemns America's capitalist culture and its attitude toward money that equates success with the state of one's bank account. Joe's father is a kind, generous, and resourceful man, but he is a failure because he doesn't earn much money. He feeds his family well because he works hard to grow food in his garden. But he's a failure because his family eats the food instead of selling it for a profit.

Even Joe buys into the idea that those who do not pursue and amass money are failures. He sees himself as having a lower social status than the flashy Glen, who steals Joe's girlfriend. Only the clear-eyed Mike Birkman understands that capitalists get working-class men to fight their wars for them. Joe comes to this realization too late to save himself.

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