Johnny Got His Gun

by: Dalton Trumbo

Chapters xiii–xiv

Summary Chapters xiii–xiv

The visit the military officials pay Joe to award him a medal revisits the idea that Joe feels cheated by his war service. The generals' ceremony and medal, for which Joe has no use, are empty symbolic gestures compared to the human connection that Joe needs. The medal, like empty words such as "liberty," seems hardly worth the price of one's life and bodily health. The medal insults Joe, and we see the intensity of his anger in his previously intense impulse to hide himself in shame, thinking his visitors were family. Joe is disgusted by the hypocrisy of generals—who do not encounter the disgusting horrors and danger of war firsthand—awarding medals to those who do. Joe's response is to try to make the generals experience the horror of his body now; he accomplishes this by thrashing and grunting around in bed, making himself seem more animal—"pig"—than man. Ironically, though the medal is nothing Joe can use or take comfort in, the generals inadvertently offer him another gift—the idea of trying to communicate through vibrations.

The outside world's perception of Joe as an animal becomes clear in his day nurse's response to his efforts to communicate with her through Morse code. Because the day nurse does not even consider the possibility that Joe could be human enough to still operate through language, she assumes that he is merely signaling, non-linguistically, his animal needs. So she tries to make him more comfortable in various ways, and eventually, in Chapter xiv, assumes that his agitation is due to pent-up sexual feeling.

Chapter xiv deals ambivalently with the day nurse's masturbation of Joe. On the one hand, Joe's disgust gives in somewhat to positive bodily response, which then triggers sentimentalized memories of prostitutes that Joe has known. In each of Joe's prostitute relationships—Laurette, Bonnie, Lucky—the emphasis is not on their sexual transactions, but on their human interaction. In this light, the nurse's attempt to bring Joe to release appears a gesture of friendliness and common humanitarian love. On the other hand, as Joe nears his release, an undertone equating sexual union with violent confrontation emerges. Joe's asides about the bomb's production and journey use highly sexual language. The image of the German girl handling the shell invites a connection with the nurse's handling of Joe's erection. The shell is buried beneath a "hill that is like a woman's breast," and the "union" of Joe and the shell is a parody of the union of sexual intercourse. The stream of consciousness sections through which the bomb asides are interspersed contain several injunctions from a brothel voice to hurry up, as many other men want to be serviced too. The ominous quality of these sexualized images, combined with the perfunctory rapidity of sexual transactions with prostitutes, leaves Joe sick and weary after his release. Because his sexual feelings are so tied up with his body, now mangled and shameful, the tenor of the section toward the nurse's well intentioned masturbation of Joe remains ambivalent.

The end of Chapter xiv uses a different form of stream of consciousness that recalls Joe's earlier memory of his farewells at the train station in Chapter iii. Rather than rendering the flow of Joe's individual consciousness, as much of the stream-of-consciousness prose in Johnny Got His Gun does, Trumbo uses these sections to create a montage effect of a setting filled with many voices—in this case, Joe's days spent in wartime Paris.