Joe Bonham is introduced as a normal young man; working class, living in Los Angeles. He accepts that “[w]hen you’re drafted you got to go” (Trumbo 30), but with his interior monologues the reader learns what Joe really thought of his place: “This was no war for you. This thing wasn’t any of your business. What do you care about making the world safe for democracy? All you wanted to do Joe was to live. […] Yet here you are and it was none of your affair. […] You never really knew what the fight was all about” (Trumbo 25). Joe is transformed by his wounds, all the modernist concerns are suddenly his. He is frustrated with the reasons behind his ‘death,’ he is alienated by his disfigurement, he is disillusioned by the men who called for action and waged war, and he is enlightened to the fallacies of the archaic social systems that continue to persist. It is through the use of stream of consciousness that Trumbo is able to reshape the internal dialogues of Joe to convey a message that is presented as something very intrinsic. Without a stream of consciousness, the passages would become lecture-like, presenting mundane literature with conspicuous propaganda.
What Trumbo has been able to do is not because he is the epitome of a workingman; rather it is as a result of research and his ability to understand his position in terms of the world, past and present. Lukács makes the claim that “[a] gifted writer, however extreme his theoretical modernism, will in practice have to compromise with the demands of historicity and of social environment” (47). Trumbo created Joe out of the gruesome realities of a war initiated by the gruesome realities of the modern world. Joe Bonham is relatable to the proletariat class of the modern west, he works manual labor, he supports himself and his family, he’s a young man that does what he’s told. He’s only awakened when he looses the life he knows. He is left alone for years with nothing but his own thoughts. While Joe quickly understands his place as an individual after he finishes taking the inventory of missing body parts (“He was completely helpless. […] He would be in this womb forever and ever and ever. He must remember that. He must never expect or hope for anything different” (Trumbo 83).), it takes him longer to see where the everyman belongs in the world. It is through Joe’s experiences that actualization of the proletariat condition occurs. Trumbo breaks down the fourth wall asking if the liberty that the capitalist tells men to fight for is really better than risking the liberty they already have at home. That if you are fighting and getting killed you should know exactly what you are being killed for (Trumbo 115-116). He tells the reader than in wars like the first world war, “[i]t’s words you’re fighting for and you’re not making an honest deal your life for something better. […] You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life. They’re plenty loud and they talk all the time” (Trumbo 118-119). Trumbo makes clear that Joe, and every other soldier and every proletariat out there was only a commodity to be objectified by the generals and politicians for profit. That those in charge could make speeches and hand out medals, but he raises the question: “How many generals got killed in the war? […] How many of them had got all shot up so they had to live wrapped in a sheet for the rest of their lives?” (Trumbo 166). Trumbo raised an issue that persists in all wars—the superficial reasons behind war are often convoluted because the real reasons would fail to pass any test of logic and reason. Those responsible for bringing countries into war are unwilling to kill themselves, but feel free to sacrifice the proletariat. In the same spirit on the topic of a very similar war Gore Vidal said: “If the Vice President and Secretary of Defense chose not to fight for their country in Vietnam, why should anyone fight for their country?” (Vidal 1046).
Trumbo uses the war and it’s many elements as a metaphor for the capitalist and the system that breeds them. Before the war, Joe is already a man weakened by the system; he accepts going to war as a responsibility, not necessarily one that he wants but something he has to do because he is told that it must be done. When Joe’s external transformation takes place, he gains a new consciousness, an understanding that he was blinded to. He understands that death in war gives no satisfaction because “[t]here’s nothing noble about dying. Not even if you die for honor. Not even if you die the greatest hero the world ever saw. […] You’re worth nothing dead except for speeches. […] Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we’ve got to fight for liberty or whatever their word is there’s always a word […] it’s your job to live not to die. […] Nothing is bigger than life” (Trumbo 123). The reader of this text is enlightened, like Joe, to the realities of the twentieth century West: the capitalist spawns the wars, the capitalist sacrifices the proletariat for its cause, the capitalist is the real enemy, its like a “rat and when you saw it there fat and well fed chewing on something that might be you why you went nuts. […] Running through a lifetime if nights and shrieking and trying to push the rat off and feeling the rat sink its teeth deeper and deeper” (Trumbo 95-96). Just as modernity in society has created a rift between the individual and the potential of individual, Trumbo sees a war like this as a part of the modern era; a destructive force a great as any before realized. The First World War provided the proletariat movement with more cause and conviction than ever: “The burdens of war will consume the best energies of the peoples for decades, endanger the achievements of social reform, and hinder every step forward. Cultural devastation, economic decline, political reaction these are the blessings of this horrible conflict of nations. Thus the war reveals the naked figure of modern capitalism which has become irreconcilable […]” (The Imperialist 474).
Trumbo uses the horrific images to define war. He tells the reader that resistance to unjust war and destruction is human nature, but it is the bourgeois ideologies that become intrinsic pieces of culture as “the emphatic and systematic proclamation of what is” (Adorno 118). The bourgeois ideal generates then ignores the anguish resultant of forced alienation. Physical deformities caused by the weapons of destruction generate the alienation of Joe—a man driven to the lowest psychological depths by the worst possible physical injuries. His lifeless existence results from the manipulation of the many by the few. Joe is one of the many exploited for all he was worth, but what he became is the embodiment of war. “People wouldn’t learn much about anatomy from him but they would learn all there was to learn about war. […] He would make an exhibit of himself to show all the little guys what would happen to them […] he would have a sign over himself and the sign would say here is war and he would concentrate the whole war into such a small piece of meat and bone and hair that they would never forget it as long as they lived” (Trumbo 232-233). The use of these images is for a purpose, they are meant to alarm so as to better stay with the reader. “The obsession with morbidity [has] ceased to have a merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality, and become a moral protest against capitalism” (Lukács 54).
In his defining moment as a self-conscious individual, Joe is overwhelmed by the system that had only become apparent to him through the destruction of his life. When he is finally able to reach out of his mind and speak to someone other than himself, Joe sees them as “drawing the curtain around him stuffing him back into the womb back into the grave saying to him goodbye don’t bother us don’t come back to life the dead should stay dead and we are done with you” (Trumbo 243). With his only hope rejected Joe sees the future and “he was a perfect picture of the future”, becoming a Christ-like figure, “the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be” (Trumbo 248). Trumbo’s ends with a threat to the “people who plan for war” and a calling to the proletariat for action to protect their livelihood: “We will use the guns you force upon use will use them to defend our very lives and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a nomansland […] it lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it” (Trumbo 250-251). The logic behind this action of dissent is that “[c]hange can come only from below: the interests of those with power are best served by maintaining the status quo. The motor for social change can come only from a sense of social difference that is based on a conflict of interest, not a liberal pluralism in which differences are finally subordinated to a consensus whose function is to maintain those differences essentially as they are” (Fiske 19). It is the responsibility of the ‘little guy,’ who is subjected by differences, to force the change that will never occur without him. The fear is that the proletariat may never understand that the only difference between them and the bourgeois is a superficial construction of the capitalist system, and not an innately human thing.
Dalton Trumbo used his character to create a message that would be very difficult to ignore. Joe is a brother, a son, a friend, a soldier, and one of the proletariat; he is what most people in the world are and he shows the vulnerability of the masses, but also the potential power. It is not what thinks about war and the cultivators of war, it is what he has become as a result of war—it is his being rather than thinking that provides Joe with his power. Trumbo’s novel is in line with the ideals of the proletariat and modernist movements that had been growing for twenty years before publication. What the Marxists presented to the world, the modernists where able to use for their arts, and the proletariat for their survival and somewhat unhindered proliferation. At the onset of the First World War, the position of the proletariat was set: “Workers! Exploited, disfranchised, scorned, they called you brothers and comrades at the outbreak of the war when you were to be led to the slaughter, to death. And now that militarism has crippled you, mutilated you, degraded and annihilated you, the rulers demand that you surrender your interests, your aims, your ideals – in a word, servile subordination to civil peace” (The Imperialist 474).
Adorno, T. W. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Lenin, V. I. The Imperialist War The Struggle Against Social Chauvinism And Social
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Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. New York: Citadel, 2007. Print.
Vidal, Gore. United States: Essays, 1952-1992. New York: Broadway, 2001. Print.