Many writers have attempted to give us a glimpse of hell over the millennia. John the Elder pictured a lake of fire and brimstone in the Book of Revelation. Dante Alighieri described the nine circles of hell in The Divine Comedy, each of which prescribed an apt punishment for its denizens’ sins. In I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison imagined hell as the belly of an enormous artificial intelligence intent on tormenting the few remaining members of humanity for all of eternity. It’s a bit grim.
Johnny Got His Gun also depicts hell, though it is grounded in neither religion nor science fiction. It tells the story of Joe Bonham, a World War I veteran whose limbs, face and senses were all blown to smithereens in an artillery attack. Entombed in his own flesh, Joe can’t even will himself to suffocate for the tracheotomy tube pressed into his throat.
Joe finally manages to communicate to the hospital staff via Morse code. He wishes for his tattered, breathing corpse to be placed in a glass box and toured around the nation so that all might see the true horrors of war for themselves. The military declines to do this; it is against regulations. Joe’s fate is to lie alive yet lifeless, on a spread of white linen, forever.
Cheerful stuff, right? But Dalton Trumbo hadn’t set out to depress his readers when he penned Johnny Got His Gun. He wished to show us exactly how brutal and needless war really is.
Whether you oppose war for its boundless cruelty, its incalculable wastefulness, or its use by governments to bolster their authority at home and abroad, the poster design for the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun is a poignant symbol of your beliefs.