A song is stuck in my head: https://bit.ly/3ceCpFh
This song is based on a book — one that was assigned in my high school English class decades ago. My Goodreads review is brief: “Undoubtedly my single favorite book of all time. Bar none.“
This is one of the most powerful books ever written as a comment against war. It received the 1940 National Book Award. Though it was written in the context of World War I — the first-person point of view of a soldier who gradually awakens to the effects of the war on his existence, now reduced to only his mind — its impact is startling, desolating, unimaginable, and timeless.
I recall reading it, and re-reading certain sections around the middle of the story and eventually at the end.
“They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life.”
This book reinforced and firmly entrenched an already-forming belief that war is jaggedly uneven and unfair in its outcomes. It also was the first book that served as an eye-opening education in how words strung together can speak to a naive, untested 16 or 17-year-old soul and shape a belief system. Never before had I seen words put together in a way so staggering that it could reach that far into my emotional psyche and grab hold of feelings I could not shake in a lifetime.
“Hickory dickory dock my daddy’s nuts from shell shock. Humpty dumpty thought he was wise till gas came along and burned out his eyes. A dillar a dollar a ten o clock scholar blow off his legs and then watch him holler.”
The words were relentless. Passage after passage described the brutal interior experience of its main character, Joe Bonham, the soldier just home from WWI but who would never be home again.
I remember crying, and I specifically remember not being able to stop crying. I went back and re-read and re-read the passages that had this inestimable impact on my teenage mind.
I would never be a soldier in a war, but these words managed to put me in the role of a relative, friend, neighbor, and a thousand strangers I would never know, for giving up their lives for a cause they didn’t even know they were fighting for, for consequences unconsidered, from decisions made by men who would never risk their own.
“You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life. They’re plenty loud and they talk all the time. You can find them in churches and schools and newspapers and legislatures and congress. That’s their business. They sound wonderful. Death before dishonor.”
My earnest teenage conscience latched onto these words like fuel for a ride with an uncertain destination. But like any book you savor to the end, the final paragraph held the biggest punch.
“Put the guns into our hands and we will use them. Give us the slogans and we will turn them into reality. Sing the battle hymns and we will take them up where you left off. Not one not ten not ten thousand not a million not ten millions not a hundred millions but a billion two billions of us all the people of the world we will have the slogans and we will have the hymns and we will have the guns and we will use them and we will live. Make no mistake of it we will live. We will be alive and we will walk and talk and eat and sing and laugh and feel and love and bear our children in tranquility and security in decency in peace. You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun.”
“Johnny Got His Gun,” Dalton Trumbo, 1939