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Joe Bonham lies injured in a hospital bed. While conscious, Joe thinks back over scenes from his past: the night of his father's death and the night before he left his girlfriend Kareen to go to World War I. Before his family moved to Los Angeles, Joe grew up in Shale City, a small town in Colorado. He remembers small-town memories and images, such as the food his mother would prepare, the first time an airplane came to Shale City, and the night he lost his girlfriend, Diane, to his best friend, Bill Harper.
The narrative shifts from the past to the present as Joe thinks regretfully about his decision to join a war that was not any of his business. Slowly, Joe begins to realize that he has been severely injured and treated in a hospital, which is where he currently lies. Joe gradually feels that his arms and legs have been amputated. Furthermore, he realizes that he cannot speak, see, hear, or smell because he no longer has a face—only a mask covering where his face used to be. Joe wonders bitterly abut the doctors' motivation for saving him at all.
Joe continues to live inside his head, reliving memories and terrorized by nightmares. He wonders how he can even tell whether he is awake or asleep. Joe thinks about his father kept beautiful gardens in a vacant city lot and fed his children well, although he was never officially a success because he never made any money. Joe continues to think bitterly about the foolishness of fighting and dying in a war that had nothing to do with him, and about the deceitfulness of abstract words like "liberty," "democracy," "freedom," and "decency."
Time passes, and Joe tries to occupy his mind with stories, facts, and figures. One day, he realizes that he should use the skin he has left—the skin of his neck that is not covered by blankets—to try to sense the outside world. Joe develops a plan to wait for the feeling of sunrise so that he can tally the nurses' visits and count the passing of the days. A year later, Joe has accomplished his goal and counted up 365 days. He celebrates the New Year in his mind, just as he has celebrated each Sunday of his year with an imagined walk in the woods.
In Joe's fourth year, he is amazed to feel that the hospital staff is prepared him to be shown to visitors. When he feels the visitors lay something on his chest, he realizes he is being given a medal. Joe becomes angry and shudders in his bed, trying to remove his mask to show the visitors how much damage men like him sustained in the war while generals emerged unscathed. Joe feels the vibrations of the men leaving the room. An idea comes upon him that if he can sense the outside world through vibrations, perhaps he might also communicate to the outside world with vibrations. Joe begins tapping SOS in Morse code with his head, but his regular nurse assumes that he is having seizures and sedates him.
Joe awakens from his sedation to realize that he has a new day nurse. The new day nurse tries to communicate with Joe by spelling out "MERRY CHRISTMAS" on his chest. Joe signals with his head that he understands, and he begins trying to tap Morse code to her. After trying to appease his tapping by making him more comfortable in various ways, the nurse eventually realizes he is trying to communicate in words.
The nurse goes to get a man who understands Morse code. This man taps onto Joe's forehead the words "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Joe spends some time thinking about the inappropriateness of the question and then tries to think about what in fact it is that he wants. Joe asks in Morse code to be taken around the outside world as an educational exhibit on the realities of war. The man listens to his response and returns a while later to tap into his head, "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS."
The man continues tapping other messages, but Joe is no longer paying attention. He is still trying to process this betrayal on the part of the people for whom he fought a war when he feels the hospital staff sedating him again. Joe taps the question "why? why? why?"—wondering why they will not let him talk or acknowledge that there is still a person inside his mangled body. Joe suddenly realizes that they are afraid to let him out, to let other men see him as the "new messiah of the battlefields." If other men see Joe, they would no longer agree to fight in wars—especially wars ordered by the upper classes, but fought only by the lower classes of peaceful, working men.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Johnny Got His Gun!