Sunday, October 23, 2005

2,000 and Counting

When armies begin to move and flags wave and slogans pop up watch out little guy because it's somebody else's chestnuts in the fire not yours. It's words you're fighting for and you're not making an honest deal your life for something better. You're being noble and after you're killed the thing you traded your life for won't do you any good and chances are it won't do anybody else any good either.
—Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

Getting back to books was one sweet consequence of freeing myself from the momentary distractions of current affairs. On the 13-hour flight to Shanghai, I started with Dalton Trumbo's 1939 National Book Award-winning novel, and gulped it down.

Find this book and read it.

The story of a horribly maimed WW I soldier — sightless, deaf, faceless and limbless — was published in 1939, just two days after the start of WW II. As the U.S. entered the conflict, Johnny went out of print, and even Trumbo agreed that was not a bad thing, since the book had become embraced by extreme right wing isolationists who wanted a quick peace with the Nazis. Once the war ended, the book was reprinted, but didn't catch on again, and by Korea was again out of print.

Taken simply as a novel, it is far too good to be lost. As a commentary on romanticized patriotism and its follies, it is essential for the times.

The protagonist, Joe Bonham, speaks for war's dead.

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. This ground sanctified by blood. These men who died so gloriously. They shall not have died in vain. Our noble dead.


But what do the dead say?

Did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god I'm glad I'm dead because death is always better than dishonor? Did they say I'm glad I died to make the world safe for democracy? Did they say I like death better than losing liberty? Did any of them ever say it's good to think I got my guts blown out for the honor of my country? Did any of them ever say look at me I'm dead but I died for decency and that's better than being alive? Did any of them ever say here I am I've been rotting for two years in a foreign grave but it's wonderful to to die for your native land? Did any of them say hurray I died for womanhood and I'm happy to see how I sing even though my mouth is choked with worms?

Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can't talk. So the words about noble deaths and sacred blood and honor and such are all put into dead lips by grave robbers and fakes who have no right to speak for the dead. If a man says death before dishonor he is either a fool or a liar because he doesn't know what death it. He isn't able to judge. He only knows about living.

As I post this, the U.S. casualties in Iraq are likely to have pushed beyond the 2,000 mark. For the sake of them and all soldiers, Trumbo asks through "the nearest thing to a dead man on earth":

How did they feel as they watched their blood pump out into the mud? How did they feel when the gas hit their lungs and began eating them all away? How did they feel as they lay crazed in hospitals and looked death straight in the face and saw him come and take them? If the thing they were fighting for was important enough to die for then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it in the last minutes of their lives. That stood to reason. Life is awfully important so if you've given it away you'd ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded it for. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?

You're goddam right they didn't.

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. They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live.


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