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Johnny Got His Gun

Book Notes

Okay, I'm unsure why I picked up this book other than it is a classic, a book that I've peripherally known about for a long time, but had never read. It is THE anti-war book (not a pacifist's book, an anti-war book). Maybe Ryan Holiday had it on his monthly book recommendation list (that list being one I highly recommend for finding good books outside one's wheelhouse).

I am against war. I believe that modern wars are economically motivated, that they are a way for rich people to become richer, that they are about control over resources, and that they grind the poor far far more heavily than they affect the rich. I despise every form of violent action.

That said, I also believe there are circumstances where you need to say, "Enough." There are times when the aggression of others needs to be stopped, when non-violent or pacifist tactics no longer work, and violence is the pragmatic action. I am unsure when that point is. The Holocaust is clearly one such case.

For the record, the ongoing War in Afghanistan? WHAT. THE. FUCK. I mean, LOOK at the U.S.'s backing of Afghan rebels to keep the U.S.S.R. out of Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the U.S.S.R. couldn't win that war, WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN? The whole thing seemed to be an infantile vengeance ploy of Baby Bush for Hussein's attack on his father, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, an economic drain, continued growing ill-will towards the U.S. and a blight in history.

I'm sure there is a lot of history I'm missing, and a lot of information about the whole situation, too. Sure, yes, I don't know what's going on, but that's exactly it: the public has an opinion shaped by the media, and the information the conspiracy of the government is willing to release. Yes, I realize this. But it is clearly a war for resources. If the money spent on that stupid war had been invested in the U.S. for technology that weans us off those resources, how much better would we have been?


So, starting from the standpoint that I am anti-war, but am pragmatic about human nature, I started reading this book. I was pretty much in agreement with the horrors of war and the arguments against war being made in the book, until around a hundred pages.

And then I became uncomfortable.

If they weren’t fighting for liberty they were fighting for independence or democracy or freedom or decency or honor or their native land or something else that didn’t mean anything.
Page 116

Those something-elses do have meaning, they do mean something.


You keep your ideals just as long as they don’t cost me my life.
Page 118

This was where I was thinking, okay, yes, my ideals shouldn't cost another his life. If I'm unwilling to sacrifice for my ideals, doesn't make sense for ...

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.
Page 119

... me to say yes to other people's kids dying.

War disproportionally affects and decimates the poor. The American War machine doesn't eat up the rich kids, it grinds the poor kids. Are the people authorizing the continued War in Afghanistan sending their own kids or grandkids to the front line? I'd wager not, and be quite surprised if I lost.

And I continued to disagree with the sentiment.

Because the guys who say life isn’t worth living without some principle so important you’re willing to die for it they are all nuts.
Page 120

I would trade democracy for life. I would trade independence and honor and freedom and decency for life. I will give you all these things and you give me the power to walk and see and hear and breathe the air and taste my food.
Page 122

And this is where I disagree with the author and the anti-war sentiment as portrayed in this book.

One could argue democracy in and of itself isn't worth dying for, and honor is a tool that those not interested in it wield against those who are or want to be (but the definitions can change enough that the manipulators of the tool benefit only themselves, which makes this a cautious, flimsy blade to die upon), but independence and freedom and decency, those are worth dying for.

The author writes,

He thought of the Carthaginian slaves down in the darkness blinded and chained and he thought they were lucky guys.
Page 190

and one presumes believes, based on his subsequent actions. Compared to someone with no arms, no legs, no mouth, no nose, no ears, and no eyes, yes, sure the ones blinded are luckier. I'm unsure their existence is better, though. The former can communicate, could potentially go home, feel the sun on his skin, the caress of a loved one, the ground under him. He could communicate via morse code, and eventually ask for his own release. The slaves, though, not at all.

I really disagree that a life lived as a slave with no personal sovereignty, no personal autonomy, is better than fighting against the oppressors.

The book is worth reading and worth pondering. I understand why it has stayed in print these many decades. It's a good book to start a discussion on where the boundaries are between pacifism and response.

She would play it clear through and his father in Shale City would be listening and thinking isn’t it wonderful I can sit here eight miles away and hold a little piece of black business to my ear and hear far off the music of Macia my beautiful my Macia.
Page 14

This book was written in 1939. The book it talks about is World War I. Phones were a new thing, and revolutionized society. We tend to forget the magic of these devices.

Then somebody else maybe six miles up or down the line would break into the conversation without being ashamed at all.
Page 14

I remembered party lines from the barest edges of memory. They were cheaper than private lines. You could pick up the phone and listen in to any conversation currently happening on the line. It was fascinating stuff, in a voyeuristic way.

Mr. Hargraves who was superintendent of schools made a speech before the flight. He told about how the invention of the airplane was the greatest step forward man had made in a hundred years. The airplane said Mr. Hargraves would cut down the distance between nations and peoples. The airplane would be a great instrument in making people understand one another in making people love one another. The airplane said Mr. Hargraves was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding. Everyone would be friends said Mr. Hargraves when the airplane knitted the world together so that the people of the world understood each other.
Page 20

Well that didn't work out, did it?

Sometimes you didn’t have enough money to go to the dance so you would drive lazily by the fair grounds and hear the music coming through the night from the pavilion. The songs all had meaning and the words were very serious. You felt all swelled up inside and you wished you were over there at the pavilion. You wondered who your girl was dancing with. Then you would light a cigarette and talk about something else.
Page 23

So, cruising. That still exists.

Well, did until the internet came along and everyone under the age of 22 plays games on the internet all day.

But the entry of Roumania into the war occurred on the same day the Los Angeles newspapers carried a story of two young Canadian soldiers who had been crucified by the Germans in full view of their comrades across Nomansland. That made the Germans nothing better than animals and naturally you got interested and wanted Germany to get the tar kicked out of her.
Page 24

He was fighting too hard and he knew it. A man can’t fight always. If he’s drowning or suffocating he’s got to be smart and hold back some of his strength for the last the final the death struggle.
Page 26

Kareen looked up at old Mike unafraid. “He’s going away in the morning.”

“I know. I know girl. Get into the bedroom. Both of you. Maybe you never get another chance. Go on K’reen.”
Page 31

War does funny things.

What a goddam shame it is to drown when if you could only stand up and stretch your hand above your head you might touch a willow branch trailing in the water like the hair of a girl like Kareen’s hair.
Page 59

He thought well kid you’re deaf as a post but there isn’t the pain. You’ve got no arms but you don’t hurt. You’ll never burn your hand or cut your finger or smash a nail you lucky stiff. You’re alive and you don’t hurt and that’s much better than being alive and hurting.
Page 60

Never again to wiggle your toes. What a hell of a thing what a wonderful beautiful thing to wiggle your toes.
Page 61

He knew now that he was surely dying but he was curious. He didn’t want to die until he had found out everything.
Page 62

You couldn’t lose that much of yourself and still keep on living.
Page 63

He had no legs and no arms and no eyes and no ears and no nose and no mouth and no tongue. What a hell of a dream. It must be a dream. Of course sweet god it’s a dream. He’d have to wake up or he’d go nuts. Nobody could live like that. A person in that condition would be dead and he wasn’t dead so he wasn’t in that condition. Just dreaming.
Page 64

He could want it to be a dream forever and that wouldn’t change things. Because he was alive alive.
Page 64

They always sent to the Midnight Mission for an extra man to work with the crew on Friday nights. The guys from the Mission came stinking of disinfectant and looking very bedraggled and embarrassed. They knew that anyone who smelled the disinfectant knew they were bums on charity. They didn’t like that and how could you blame them? They were always humble and when they were bright enough they worked hard. Some of them weren’t bright. Some of them couldn’t even read the orders on the bins.
Page 67

And yet, there was a chance at finding a job.

He said he had come to California to go into the movies. No he didn’t want to be an actor. But there should be many jobs for a young man like himself with ambition in a business as great as the movies. He said that he thought he might like to work in the research department at one of the studios.
Page 69

I love this idea, of going to Hollywood to work in a research department.

It was like a full grown man suddenly being stuffed back into his mother’s body. He was lying in stillness. He was completely helpless.
Page 83

He would never again be able to see the faces of people who made you glad just to look at them of people like Kareen.
Page 84

Now that he understood the purpose and mechanics of the mask the scab became an irritation instead of merely a curious thing. Even when he was a kid he could never let a scab quite heal over. He was always picking at it. Now he was picking at this scab by tossing his head and drawing the mask tight.
Page 90

Yeah, I understand that better than I should.

Jim had been put in a ward where there were a lot of guys who had holes here and there that wouldn’t heal. Some of them had been lying there draining and stinking for months. The smell of that ward when you hit it was like the smell of a corpse you stumble over on patrol duty like the smell of a rich ripe corpse that falls open at the touch of a boot and sends up a stench of dead flesh like a cloud of gas.
Page 93

For example when he was a kid he used to day dream. He used to sit back and think of things he’d do some day. Or he used to think of things he did last week. But all the time he would be awake.
Page 101

He had a great hedge of sunflowers around it. The sunflower hearts were sometimes a foot across. The seeds made fine food for the chickens.
Page 107

A big sunflower, with a foot diameter of seeds? Yeah, fine food for rats, too.

By the end of the season the cellar was packed. You would go down there and beside the great crocks of water-glassed eggs there would be mason jars of every kind of fruit you could want. There would be apricot preserves and orange marmalade and raspberry jam and blueberry jam and apple jelly. There would be hard-boiled eggs canned in beet juice and bread and butter pickles and salted cherries and chili sauce. If you went down in October you would find three or four heavy fruit cakes black and moist and filled with citron and nuts. They would be in the coolest corner of the cellar and they would be carefully wrapped with damp cloths against the Christmas season.

All of these things they had and yet his father was a failure. His father couldn’t make any money.
Page 109

One could argue his dad was wealthier than most, and yet...

They couldn’t get meat as well cured. No amount of money could buy that. Those things you had to raise for yourself. His father had managed to do it even to the honey they used on the hot biscuits his mother made. His father had managed to produce all these things on two city lots and yet his father was a failure.
Page 110

And yet, he should have been failure, and labelled a success.

There are plenty of laws to protect guys’ money even in war time but there’s nothing on the books says a man’s life’s his own.
Page 114

What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It’s just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it’s a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let’s fight for liberty and he can’t show you liberty.
Page 114

If there could be a next time and somebody said let’s fight for liberty he would say mister my life is important. I’m not a fool and when I swap my life for liberty I’ve got to know in advance what liberty is and whose idea of liberty we’re talking about and just how much of that liberty we’re going to have.
Page 115

Hell’s fire guys had always been fighting for liberty. America fought a way for liberty in 1776. Lots of guys died. And in the end does America have any more liberty than Canada or Australia who didn’t fight at all?
Page 115

See, this is one of those lines that I disagree with. Canada and Australia have the liberties it does because America fought.

Would they have managed their liberty without fighting? Could you argue that England was going to fold in upon itself and just let those colonies have their own sovernty? Sure, you could. I'm not sure how much data you'd have to back it up, though. People view loss as much worse than a gain is good. Pretty sure more liberty has been gained by force over waiting for the good will of the oppressors.

A guy can think of being dead a hundred years from now and he doesn’t mind it. But to think of being dead tomorrow morning and to be dead forever to be nothing but dust and stink in the earth is that liberty?
Page 115

They were always fighting for something the bastards and if anyone dared say the hell with fighting it’s all the same each war is like the other and nobody gets any good out of it why they hollered coward.
Page 116

Yep. Propoganda and how to influence people by triggering shame.

Then there was this freedom the little guys were always getting killed for.
Page 116

You’re being noble and after you’re killed the thing you traded your life for won’t do you any good and chances are it won’t do anybody else any good either.
Page 118

There are lots of idealists around who will say have we got so low that nothing is more precious than life? Surely there are ideals worth fighting for even dying for.
Page 118

And they say but surely life isn’t as important as principle. Then you say oh no? Maybe not yours but mine is. What the hell is principle? Name it and you can have it.
Page 118

They sound wonderful. Death before dishonor. This ground sanctified by blood. These men who died so gloriously. They shall not have died in vain. Our noble dead. Hmmmm. But what do the dead say?
Page 119

Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can’t talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead.
Page 119

And all the guys who died all the five million or seven million or ten million who went out and died to make the world safe for democracy to make the world safe for words without meaning how did they feel about it just before they died?
Page 121

He could tell them mister there’s nothing worth dying for I know because I’m dead.
Page 122

You’re worth nothing dead except for speeches.
Page 124

If they say coward why don’t pay any attention because it’s your job to live not to die. If they talk about dying for principles that are bigger than life you say mister you’re a liar. Nothing is bigger than life. There’s nothing noble in death.
Page 124

Because when you’re dead mister it’s all over. It’s the end.
Page 124

Half a league half a league half a league onward. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred. Noble six hundred. Theirs not to reason why theirs but to do or die.
Page 128

There are eight planets. They are Earth Venus Jupiter Mars Mercury. One two three four five. Three more. He didn’t know.
Page 128

This cracked me up. Sure, there are now eight. Between then and now, there were nine.

FTR: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune [Pluto]

Hell the trouble with him was he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know a thing. Why hadn’t they taught him something he could remember? Why didn’t he have something to think about?
Page 129

It wasn’t that he had forgotten how to remember. It was just that he’d never paid any attention so he had nothing worth remembering.
Page 129

But where would she be — the real Kareen — the Kareen out in the world out in time? While he slept with the nineteen year old Kareen every night was the real Kareen with somebody else a woman now perhaps with a baby?
Page 150

It seemed that an American any American was a friend compared to any Englishman or Frenchman. That was because he was an American himself America was his home he had been born there and anyone outside was a stranger.
Page 150

Even though he could do nothing but lie in blackness it would be better if the blackness were the blackness of home and if the people who moved in the blackness were his own people his own American people.
Page 151

He’d never had any particular ideas about Amerca. He’d never been very patriotic. It was something you took without even thinking.
Page 152

It never seemed to occur to her that there was a mind an intelligence working behind the rhythm of his head against the pillow. She was simply watching over an incurably sick patient trying to make his sickness as comfortable as possible.
Page 173

But that was all talk because they were really very young guys and Ruby was the first and only girl they knew they were too shy with other girls with nice girls. They soon grew ashamed of Ruby and when they went down they would always feel a little dirty and a little disgusted. They came away blaming Ruby somehow for making them feel that way.
Page 175

He got to thinking of all the prisoners he had ever read about or heard about all the little guys from the beginning of the doing of things who had been caught and imprisoned and who had died without ever becoming free again. He thought of the slaves little guys like himself who had been captured in war who had spent the rest of their lives chained like animals to oars rowing some big guy’s ship through the Mediterranean sea. He thought of them down there in the deeps of the ship never knowing where they were going never smelling the outer air never feeling anything except the oar in their hands and the shackles on their legs and the whip that lashed their backs when they grew tired.
Page 189

He thought of them and he thought they were luckier than I am they could move they could see each other they were more nearly living than I and they were not imprisoned as securely.
Page 190

They were in agony but they died soon and even in their agony they could stand on two legs they could pull against their chains.
Page 190

He too had been forced to fight against other slaves of his own kind in a strange place.
Page 191

He knew now that he had never been really happy in his whole life. There had been times when he had thought he was happy but none of them were like this.
Page 223

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.
Page 250

Put the guns into our hands and we will use them. Give us the slogans and we will turn them into realities.
Page 252

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.
Page 252

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