“Somebody said let’s go out and fight for liberty and so they went out and got killed without ever once thinking of liberty. And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose kind of liberty? Were they fighting for the liberty of eating free ice cream cones all their lives or for the liberty of robbing anybody they pleased whenever they wanted to or what? You tell a man he can’t rob and you take away some of his liberty. You’ve got to. What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It’s a word like house or table or any other word. Only it’s a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let’s fight for liberty and he can’t show you liberty. He can’t prove the thing he’s talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it? No sir anybody who went out and got into the front line trenches to fight for liberty was a goddamn fool and the guy who got him there was a liar.”
― Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun
Multiple sources recently corroborated the story that US President Donald Trump cancelled a visit to a US cemetery outside Paris because he said it was “filled with losers,” and did not feel it was important to venerate America’s war dead. The report which appeared in The Atlantic also stated that during the same trip, Trump also allegedly referred to 1,800 US soldiers who died at Belleau Wood as “suckers.”
While veterans groups and centrist politicians have been quick to decry Trump’s outbursts as disrespectful and the sign of a dangerous man who is unfit for office that is probably the least interesting aspect of the revelations. Verbally, the incumbent President might be the only member of the elite willing to slight the military as expendable cogs of an economic and imperial machine, but in terms of practical policy, generations of the same people condemning Trump have behaved in a way that assigns soldiers that same lot in life. Something else much more interesting is going on here then – a slip of the mask, an insight into the way those in power generally feel about the millions of grunts they have happily sent to their deaths in needless conflicts from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Syria. “Of course we don’t care about these people, and of course they are suckers for thinking we have share values and interests with them to the extent they will behave as our human-shield. But you aren’t meant to say that.”
The site of Belleau Wood – recently featured in Cameron Bonham’s The Mind Festers First – being central to this little ruling-class spat is quite fitting, considering its role in the veneration of the US Marine Corps. The Battle of Belleau Wood of June 1918 occurred during the German Spring Offensive in the First World War. German commanders ordered an advance through Belleau Wood as part of a major offensive, in which other German troops would cross the nearby Marne River. The US Marines presently holding the area waited until the Germans were within 100 yards before opening fire, mowing down waves of German infantry and forcing survivors to retreat into the woods. Both sides became entrenched, and a month-long deadlock ensued, by the end of which US forces suffered 9,777 casualties, including 1,811 killed. There is no clear information on the number of German soldiers killed, although 1,600 were taken prisoner.
While it would be reprehensible to label anyone a ‘winner’ on the back of such a catastrophic waste of life, business was booming for the war profiteers back home. On all ‘sides,’ companies used the war as an opportunity to cash in, increasing their rates for material to supply the war effort, while ramping up production, creating a booming economy centred on death. In the US, this saw Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, later criticise the way private enterprise had managed to cash in on warfare so easily, writing, “It has been estimated by statisticians and economists and researchers that the war cost your Uncle Sam $52,000,000,000. Of this sum, $39,000,000,000 was expended in the actual war period. This expenditure yielded $16,000,000,000 in profits.”
Thanks to this fusion of industrial capitalism and warfare, permanent war and universal militarism would go on to become the dominant characteristics of the 20th and 21st centuries. There’s always a cheap buck to be made from it after all. The problem is that there would be no public support for it, or bodies to throw at rival nation states, without having to reimagine the entire process via rose-tinted ideological spectacles.
The Marines of Belleau Wood are a key example of the century-long process which has consistently worked to portray a profiteer’s war as a heroic act of patriotic sacrifice. The site was dedicated as an American battle monument. During the ceremony declaring it such, Major General Harbord said of the future of the site:
“Now and then, a veteran, for the brief span that we still survive, will come here to live again the brave days of that distant June. Here will be raised the altars of patriotism; here will be renewed the vows of sacrifice and consecration to country. Hither will come our countrymen in hours of depression, and even of failure, and take new courage from this shrine of great deeds.”
This has long been the public approach of the global elite to talking about those who died fighting the ruling-class’ battles. Materially however, the actions of those same people routinely neglect the needs of generations of homeless amputees its wars spawn, showing that as loudly as they might howl with indignation at what Donald Trump has to say, he is only saying what they have always thought.
That brings me to the work of legendary American screen-writer Dalton Trumbo; a man who spent his career producing vibrant, witty and radical films from within Hollywood’s studio system. In a world of micro-management and risk-averse mega-productions, that alone seems impossible now, but even more so when it is considered that he openly used his clout to champion striking studio workers further down the production chain.
It’s something which earned him a great many powerful enemies, and eventually his fighting fearlessly for freedom of political expression in McCarthyite America saw him jailed for being a communist, alongside with the Hollywood Ten. Following his release, he was blackballed by his former employers – but he went on to win two Oscars for his work written under pseudonyms, fatally undermining the Hollywood blacklist. Having managed to fight his way back into the industry, Trumbo then used the opportunity to commit his novel Johnny Got His Gun to the silver screen.
It is telling that of all his work, this was the only film that Trumbo would not trust someone else to direct, having adapted the screen-play from his own book. With the US still firmly entrenched in the Vietnam War, he clearly felt the message at the heart of the film was too important to risk it being downplayed. Ultimately, Johnny Got His Gun is less concerned with lecturing its audience about the immorality of killing, or eulogising the victims of war as poor, innocent victims, as it is with critiquing the grotesque act of ragged-trousered philanthropy through which no sustained event of mass slaughter could take place.
Be it the First World War – in which Johnny Got His Gun takes place – or any other conflict in human history; every war relies on millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people convincing themselves that they have something to gain by fighting and killing each other for an elite running their respective country who would rather spit at them than see them fed and housed properly in peace-time. This means that on top of the biting attack on the elite arrogance and patriotic bluster which leads to the needless destruction of a young man’s life here, the film also provides a stinging assessment of the mental gymnastics required to enlist as cannon-fodder.
Joe (Timothy Bottoms, who I previously interviewed on this, his first cinematic role) is a young American is struggling to come to terms with the hardship of working class life set out before him, something exacerbated by the recent death of his father (the impeccable Jason Robards). Desperate to avoid the fate of his world-weary father, Joe enlists to go to fight in France, without either properly understanding what he is being to ask for, or considering just why the government which has neglected him and his family so thoroughly would want to send him on some allegedly glorious adventure now. Inevitably, Joe soon finds that the Great War is not all it was cracked up to be.
Left in a state of living death after being hit by a German shell, Joe is left trapped in his own head to reflect on the harsh reality of the American dream, and the hypocrisy of making war in the name of democracy. As Joe drifts through his distant memories, a particularly pertinent exchange sees his beaten down father overtly address the vagueness of the patriotic discourses used to drag soldiers into a fight they have no material interest in.
After a young Joe asks his father what democracy is, he responds:
“Well it’s never bright clear on myself. Like any other kind government it’s got something to do with young men killing each other I believe.”
Joe then asks if his father would want him to go to war when his turn came. To this, his father – seemingly resigned to the dreadful future awaiting his son – chillingly says:
“For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son…”
Robards’ chillingly deadpan delivery of the latter statement suggests he is aware when the time comes, he is unable to provide the kind of life which could help Joe resist the siren’s call of military adventurism. His son will most likely consign himself to put his life on the line with nothing to gain, while never truly understanding what he is even fighting for.
That prophecy of course comes to fruition, and Joe spends the film’s duration coming to the same realisation as his father. This learning curve builds to an unsettling crescendo at the film’s climax, where the faceless, limbless Joe finally discovers a way of communicating with the rest of the world via Morse code.
Having gained the attention of his superiors, he thrashes his head against his pillow to tap out a plea for euthanasia. His superiors – the archetypal stuffed-suits of the military’s managerial class – are deeply disturbed by the request, and instead have him wheeled away and concealed as a shameful secret consequence of a war that is serving to line their pockets, and those of their own masters. In this moment, a final lesson is imparted too late for Joe that ordinary people have precious little to gain and everything to lose by signing up to fight for the interests of a status quo that is disinterested in them unless it needs to throw another few thousand bodies at one of its rivals.
As the furore surrounding Donald Trump’s comments on the US’ war dead quickly fade into the white-noise of impotent outrage perpetually surrounding his Presidency, it is worth remembering that whoever sits in the Oval Office, they will likely perceive the willing hordes who throw themselves into the proverbial meat-grinder at their behest as “losers.” Films like Johnny Got His Gun have always tried to warn us as much.