Joe struggles to regain control over his mind in order to think through his situation. Time has passed since the wounds where Joe's limbs were cut off have healed. Joe likens his position to being back in the womb, except with no promise of future life. He thinks of all the things he will never hear, see, smell, or do again.
Joe ponders his current vulnerability and the twist of fate that has left him alive while many others have died with much less serious injuries. He thinks of all the grotesque stories he's heard about survivors of war—one man with an open-view stomach, one man who had his faced burned off only to return home and be killed by his wife. Joe bitterly realizes that the fact that he is alive must be a point of pride for the doctors, who think only of their own skills and victories and not at all about his quality of life.
Joe begins to calm himself and to try to feel the status of his body. He realizes that there is a cloth mask tied over his face that has settled into the mucus scab at the bottom of the hole in his face. Joe decides to pull the mask off, but gradually realizes that he will never be able to accomplish even a small task such as this. Joe notices a hole in his side that has not yet healed. Joe reasons that the hole, which is running liquid, must smell unpleasant, and he is glad he has no sense of smell.
Joe becomes tired and feels himself slipping away. He dreams that a rat crawls over him and begins eating out of his open wound. Once, during the war, Joe and others found the body of a Prussian soldier who had been dead for several weeks; a rat had been eating the man's face. Joe and the others chased the rat and beat it dead, but they felt foolish afterward. Joe thought about it afterward and reasoned that one's real enemy is not the people one is fighting in war, but the rat. Joe feels the rat eating at him now and he knows that there is nothing he can do to stop it, that it will return to eat from his wound night after night forever. Joe feels himself running away and screaming and becomes tired.
Joe feels the nurse cleaning him and redressing his wounds. Joe now knows that the rat was only a dream, but he worries that the same dream will trouble his sleep again. He realizes that when he used to have nightmares he could calm himself down by realizing it was a nightmare and opening his eyes. But now Joe has no eyes, and he worries that there will be no way for him to distinguish between sleeping and waking. Joe wonders how, without the ability to move, he will now tire himself out enough to fall directly asleep.
Joe works himself into a panic over his dilemma, but he finally just resolves to be decisive about the differences between his sleep and his wakefulness. Joe decides that he will no longer dream about the past when he is awake, but instead he will think very hard until he is tired and falls asleep. Joe must make himself do this, because if he cannot distinguish between waking and sleeping, that makes him "nothing and less than nothing."
Chapters vii and viii mark Joe's emergence from his dream world of the past. Much time has passed, and Joe seems to have spent it either unconsciously daydreaming or simply unconscious. He comes conscious again and begins to think through his situation, first thinking about the fate that brought him to his current state, then thinking about the latest threats to his sanity.
Trumbo wrote much of Johnny Got His Gun as stream of consciousness. Stream of consciousness has been used as a literary technique to emphasize the origin of a narrative from inside the mind of a single character, rather than from an objective, distanced, third party. This form is obviously appropriate to Johnny Got His Gun, a novel in which the entire narrative takes place within Joe's head. The lack of some punctuation in stream of consciousness narratives accentuates the rapidity of the thoughts and the means by which they flow into one another. It also gives a sense of real time—as though Joe is having the thoughts at the same speed at which we read them. The pacing of Johnny Got His Gun is thus particularly interesting, as parts of the chapters happen in real time, yet often the novel conveys the sense that time has passed between chapters—as with the healing of Joe's stumps between Chapters vi and vii. Later, in Book II, years pass between some chapters.
Chapter vii is the first chapter that makes multiple references to the war, as Joe thinks back over horror stories he has heard about war survivors and recounts a scene from his own time at war. The images that Joe relates are obliquely relevant to the war only. He does not explicitly relate facts about his time there—where he was stationed, who he was stationed with—nor does he ever in the course of the novel. The purpose of the war stories here is to create a sufficiently grotesque context within which Joe can begin to understand the logic of his current senseless, limbless state.
The nightmare of the rat also relates back to Joe's war experience. The rat stands as symbol of the mentality of war. Joe's thought during the war—that the rat is everyone's true enemy—has to do with who profits from warfare. From Joe's point of view, neither the Americans nor the Germans who are actually in battle will profit from the war; in fact, they will lose much, like the Prussian soldier whom Joe finds dead. The rat is the figure that profits from the death and injury of war, as it feeds itself off of the dying flesh of others. The rat, therefore, can be seen as a symbol of those people who are not fighting the war, but who stand to profit from it—or those people who profit more generally from the continuation of a mentality of warfare rather than peace.