World War I began like a summer festival - all billowing skirts and golden epaulets. Millions upon millions cheered from sidewalks while plumed imperial highnesses, serenities, field marshals and other such fools paraded through the capital cities of Europe at the head of their shining legions.
It was a season of generosity; a time for boasts, bands, poems, song, innocent prayers. It was an August made palpitant and breathless by the prenuptial nights of young gentlemen-officers and the girls they left permanently behind them. One of the Highland regiments went over the top in its first battle behind fort kilted bagpipers, skirling away for all they were worth - at machine guns.
Nine million corpses later, when the bands stopped and the serenities started running, the wail of bagpipes would never again sound quite the same. It was the last of the romantic wars; and Johnny Got His Gun was probably the last American novel written about it before an entirely different affair called World War II got underway.
The book has a weird political history. Written in 1938 when pacifism was anathema to the American left and most of the center, it went to the printers in the spring of 1939 and was published on September third - ten days after the Nazi-Soviet pact, two days after the start of World War II.
Shortly thereafter, on the recommendations of Mr. Joseph Wharton Lippincott (who felt it would stimulate sales), serial rights were sold to The Daily Worker of New York City. For months thereafter the book was a rally point for the left.
After Pearl Harbor, its subject matter seemed as inappropriate to the time as the shriek of bagpipes. Mr. Paul Blanshard, speaking of army censorship in The Right To Read (1955) says, "A few pro-Axis foreign-language magazines had been banned, as well as three books, including Dalton Trumbo's pacifist novel Johhny Get Your Gun, produced during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact."
Since Mr. Blanshard fell into what I hope was unconscious error both as to the period of the book's "production" and the title under which it was "produced," I can't place too much faith in his story of its suppression. Certainly I was not informed of it; I received a number of letters from service men overseas who had read it through Army libraries; and, in 1945, I myself ran across a copy in Okinawa while fighting was still in progress.
If, however, it had been banned and I had known about it, I doubt that I should have protested very loudly. There are times when it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good. I know that's a dangerous thought, and I shouldn't wish to carry it too far, but World War II was not a romantic war.
As the conflict deepened, and Johnny went out of print altogether, its unavailability became a civil liberties issue with the extreme American right. Peace organizations and "Mothers'" groups from all over the country showered me with fiercely sympathetic letters denouncing Jews, Communists, New Dealers and international bankers, who had suppressed my novel to intimidate millions of true Americans who demanded an immediate negotiated peace.
My corresepondents, a number of whom used elegant stationery and sported tidewater addresses, maintained a network of communications that extended to the detention camps of pro-Nazi internees. They pushed the price of the book above six dollars for a used copy, which displeased me for a number of reasons, one of them fiscal. They proposed a national rally for peace-now, with me as cheer leader; they promised (and delivered) a letter campaign to pressure the publisher for a fresh edition.
Nothing could have convinced me so quickly that Johnny was exactly the sort of book that shouldn't be reprinted until the war was at an end. The publishers agreed. At the insistence of friends who felt my correspondents' effort could adversely affect the war effort, I foolishly reported their activities in the F.B.I. But when a beautifully matched pair of investigators arrived at my house, their interest lay not in the letters but in me. I have the feeling that it still does, and it serves me right.
After 1945, those two or three new editions which appeared found favor with the general left, and apparently were completely ignored by everybody else, including all those passionate war-time mothers. It was out of print again during the Korean War, at which time I purchased the plates rather than have them sold to the government for conversion into munitions. And there story ends, or begins.
Reading it once more after so many years, I've had to resist a nervous itch to touch it up here, to change it there, to clarify, correct, elaborate, cut. After all, the book is twenty years younger than I, and I have changed so much, and it hasn't. Or has it?
Is it possible for anything to resist change, even a mere commodity than can be bought, buried, banned, damned, praised, or ignored for all the wrong reasons? Probably not. Johnny held a different meaning for three different wars. Its present meaning is what each reader conceives it to be, and each reader is gloriously different from every other reader, and each is also changing.
I've let it remain as it was to see what it is.
March 25, 1959
Addendum - 1970
Eleven years later. Numbers have dehumanized us. Over breakfast we read of 40,000 Americans dead in Vietnam. Instead of vomiting, we reach for the toast. Our morning rush through crowded streets is not to cry murder but to hit that trough before somebody else gobbles our share.
An equation: 40,000 dead young men = 3,000 tons of bone and flesh, 124,000 pounds of brain matter, 50,000 gallons of blood, 1,840,000 years of life that will never be lived, 100,000 children who will never be born. (The last we can afford: there are too many starving children in the world already.)
Do we scream in the night when it touches our dreams? No. We don't dream about it because we don't think about it; we don't think about it because we don't care about it. We are much more interested in law and order, so that American streets may be made safe while we transform those of Vietnam into flowing sewers of blood which we replenish each year by forcing our sons to choose between a prison cell here or a coffin there. "Every time I look at the flag, my eyes fill with tears." Mine too.
If the dead mean nothing to us (except on Memorial Day weekend when the national freeway is clotted with surfers, swimmers, skiers, picnickers, campers, hunters, fishers, footballers, beer-busters), what of our 300,000 wounded? Does anyone know where they are? How they feel? How many arms, legs, ears, noses, mouths, faces, penises they've lost? How many are deaf of dumb or blind or all three? How many are single or double or triple or quadruple amputees? How many will remain immobile for the rest of their days? How many will hang on as decerebrated vegetables quietly breathing their lives away in small, dark, secret rooms?
Write the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corp, the Army and Navy Hospitals, the Director of Medical Sciences at the National Library of Medicine, the Veterans Administration, the Office of the Surgeon General - and be surprised by what you don't learn. One agency reports 726 admissions "for amputation services" since January, 1965. Another reports 3,011 amputees since the beginning of the fiscal year 1968. The rest is silence.
The Annual Report of the Surgeon General: Medical Statistics of the United States Army ceased publication in 1954. The Library of Congress reports that the Army Office of the Surgeon General for Medical Statistics "does not have figures on single or multiple amputees." Either the government doesn't think them important or, in the words of a researcher for one of the national television networks, "the military itself, while sure of how many tons of bombs it has dropped, is unsure of how many legs and arms its men have lost."
If there are no concrete figures, at least we are beginning to get comparitive ones. Proportionately, Vietnam has given us eight time as many paralytics as World War II, three times as many totally disabled, 35% more amputees. Senator Cranston of California concludes that out of every hundred army veterans receiving compensation for wounds received in action in Vietnam, 12.4% are totally disabled. Totally.
But exactly how many hundreds or thousands of the dead-while-living does that give us? We don't know. We don't ask. We turn away from them; we avert the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, face. "Why should I look, it wasn't my fault, was it?" It was, of course, but no matter. Time presses. Death waits even for us. We have a dream to pursue, the whitest white hope of them all, and we must follow and find it before the light fails.
So long, losers. God bless. Take care. We'll be seeing you.
January 3, 1970