In 1970, I was 16, a Young Republican, my head filled with editorials from National Review. "Dad," I used to say, "we can win this Vietnam thing, if only we had the guts." And my father, an Old Republican and World War II vet who had long before grown weary of death counts, would answer, "Son, no war is worth its cost."
I'd shake my head and shuffle off to school.
Several things that summer, most of them from the right, shook my conservative political beliefs to their roots. Ayn Rand was one, of course. Another was a photocopy of Murray Rothbard's "Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal," from Ramparts magazine, handed to me by an "anarcho-capitalist"; he was waving an enormous black flag outside a Young Americans for Freedom leadership conference in Glendale, California.
Still another earthshaker came from the left: the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo.
Thinking back, I can't imagine how this dangerous book got into my young hands, let alone why I began reading it. After all, I'd already been to the theater to see Patton three times that summer. I was still trying to convince Dad that My Lai didn't really mean anything. And then here comes this punctuation-deficient piece of lefty propaganda, written by one of the Hollywood Ten, for crying out loud, a former Communist Party member. And somehow, I did read the book.
It rattled the heck out of me.
In short time, Johnny Got His Gun made me an anarchist peacenik. Granted, I was a right-wing anarchist peacenik, but an anarchist peacenik just the same.
Since that summer more than 30 years ago, I've reread Trumbo's heroic novel a half-dozen times. I believe it is to the anti-war movement what Atlas Shrugged is to the libertarian movement.
It's not just a novel. It's a concussion device.
The story is all told "in the head" of Joe, a young American soldier who has fought in The War To End All Wars. (Fittingly, the novel was first published in September 1939, two days after the start of The Good War.) As Joe's memories of life before and during the war progress, he gradually and chillingly realizes that he's lying in a military hospital. And that there's nothing left of him. No arms. No legs. No ears. No face.
Johnny Got His Gun is shocking and ghastly and gruesome just like war. It is also powerful and unforgettable. This Memorial Day 2002, when so very few of us openly protest our current War Without End, I think it's vital that you find a copy and read it. Or reread it. Then pass it on.
Dalton Trumbo's novel closes with what is one of the most powerful anti-war manifestoes ever written:
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. They will not be us the guys who grow wheat and turn it into food the guys who make clothes and paper and houses and tiles the guys who build dams and power plants and string the long moaning high tension wires the guys who crack crude oil down into a dozen different parts who make light globes and sewing machines and shovels and automobiles and airplanes and tanks and guns oh no it will not be us who die. It will be you.
It will be you you who urge us on to battle you who incite us against ourselves you who would have one cobbler kill another cobbler you who would have one man who works kill another man who works you who would have one human being who wants only to live kill another human being who wants only to live. Remember this. Remember this well you people who plan for war. Remember this you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans. Remember this as you have never remembered anything else in your lives.
We are men of peace we are men who work and we want no quarrel. But if you destroy our peace if you take away our work if you try to range us one against the other we will know what to do. If you tell us to make the world safe for democracy we will take you seriously and by god and by Christ we will make it so. We will use the guns you force upon us we will use them to defend our very lives and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a nomansland that was set apart without our consent it lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it.
Put the guns into our hands and we will use them. Give us the slogans and we will turn them into realities. Sing the battle hymns and we will take them up where you left off. Not one not ten not ten thousand not a million not ten millions not a hundred millions but a billion two billions of us all the people of the world we will have the slogans and we will have the hymns and we will have the guns and we will use them and we will live. We will be alive and we will walk and talk and eat and sing and laugh and feel and love and bear our children in tranquillity in security in decency in peace. You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun."
May 16, 2002