Johnny Got His Gun: The Constant Fight for Democracy
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, which translates to “It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland”, is the phrase said by Director Dalton Trumbo at the end of the film, Johnny Got His Gun. During WWI, United States had the idea that dying for one’s country to make the world a “safe democracy”, was worth of doing. For instance, many young Americans volunteered to assist in war even though they knew dying was a fact. Furthermore, this belief was backed up by the Sedition Act, which regulated all criticism of the war and government until 1921.
However, it is certain that war is not a good option for anyone, especially for inexperienced young soldiers. Many of these young soldiers came back as amputees or with Shell Shock, a “condition which encompassed a range of physical and psychological symptoms”, even worse with both of this injuries. Other soldiers who came back suffered from Post Traumatic Disorder (PTSD), and U.S. hospitals were not prepared to handle these type of patients. After World War I, PTSD, became a real problem. In the film, Johnny Got His Gun, director Dalton Trumbo displayed the social tensions occurring in American soil during WWI, through the idea that no one knew what fighting for democracy really meant; however, this “brave” effort had a destructive effect not only on the soldier itself, but on society as well.
The idea of “fight for democracy” was a unclear concept used by the U.S. government to get people to join the army, but no one knew what its meaning was. In the film, a flashback of young Joe asking his father “What is democracy?” is shown. His father answered, “Well it was never clear… It’s got something to do with young men killing each other I believe”. The conversation between both characters portrays to the audience that young adults were unaware of the actual meaning of democracy, instead, they only foresaw the violent outcome of war. In the poem Rendezvous, the author recited, “I have a rendezvous with Death/At some disputed barricade”, meaning that many young soldier just went to war to face death and only saw the danger of war. On the contrary, adults were instilled these beliefs by their parents that fight for democracy was the right thing to do, and that was part of their moral values. Likewise, during WW1, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States was a Classic Progressivist, a firm believer in democracy, and who was able to create a just and equal society. “The world must be made safe for democracy.
We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind” were words of Mr. Woodrow Wilson in which he was approaching to his citizens by indirectly forcing them to contribute in the avoiding of oppression and promotion of democracy. In the Declaration of War Against Germany, President Wilson exclaimed, “We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make”. In the film, an allusion is made to Jesus Christ through the words of little Joe and his father. Joe asked his father if he would be sent to war, so, his father explained, “For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son”. God let his son die for our sins in the Cross, which display the same point of view of the wise men. The firm belief that wise men had about sending their son to die for democracy was the right thing to do, overruled the actual meaning that it had and the consequences it could bring.
Moreover, WWI brought shell shock to the attention as it was an actual and widespread problem that had a lasting impact on society. As presented in the clip “Shellshock and WWI Soldiers”, soldiers had mental and physical issues such as walking and staying still. This conditions impacted the life of these brave and young soldiers and the society as a whole. Referring back to the film, Joe had an extreme case of shell shock. He almost died and had to have both of his arms and legs amputated. Due to negligence of the doctors, he was misdiagnosed because doctor stated in the film, “it is impossible for the decerebrated individual to experience any sort of pain, plasia, memory, dreams, or thoughts of any kind. This young man we be as unfeeling and unthinking as the dead until the day he joins them”. He could feel and think perfectly, but due to shell shock, his condition was inexplicable. He could not distinguish between having a dream or being in his own reality and day to day life. This idea can be best exemplified when he was debating if the rat was really part of his imagination or real life. At the end, he realized it was only part of his imagination. Eva Dobell, a volunteer at the Red Cross during WWI, experienced first handedly how injured soldiers suffered. Dobell in her poem “Pluck” apprises experiences she had as a nurse with injured soldiers. “So broke with pain, he shrinks in dread/To see the “dresser” drawing near;”. This is what Joe experienced every day.
The constant necessity of desiring his suffering to end, but the only way possible was through death. The feeling of solving everything by killing oneself was something almost every soldier with shell shock experienced. The only way to escape all the nightmares, the horrible memories, and the pain was death. For why shell shock/PTSD is the reason thousands of veterans ended up committing suicide.
Johnny Got his Gun from Dalton Trumbo is an extraordinary film that depicts the perplexity that war for democracy created, and the damage it caused in American society. It is certain that no soldier could ever know what fighting for democracy really meant. The mental and physical injuries Joe suffered in the film were irremediable, his suffering could only end with death, by which he was in complete denial. Johnny Got His Gun assists the audience in realizing how bad event can turn out during a war and that no one gets out unharmed. “ This opens up manifold possibilities for different histories of shell shock, but also has implications for how we write the history of war and suffering, and our own understandings of these events.” If everyone in the world could understand that war always brings pain and suffering, the world would be a better place.
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