Senseless: One Soldier’s Fight to Speak Against War

Well, how do you like that! We just got ourselves a DVD/VCR recorder, in hopes of upgrading our video library and phasing out the old tapes that are piling up all over the place. As it turns out, the cassettes I shipped over from the US, which had played fine on the machine that gave up the ghost a couple of days ago, are being rejected by the new, regionally coded, high-tech marvel. Is it any wonder I am such an advocate of the state-of-the-Ark, the marvels of old-time radio drama?

On this day, 9 March, in 1940, for instance, playwright Arch Oboler masterfully exploited the potentialities of the medium with his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. As reworked by Oboler, this “most talked of book of the year” relates the experience of a soldier (portrayed by James Cagney) who lost his limbs, his vision, his hearing in combat. More than twenty years later, lying “alone in a room in a hospital close to your city,” having “no arms, no legs, no ears with which to hear, no eyes with which to see, no mouth with which to speak,” he yet learns to communicate what serving his country at once enabled and disabled him to say. He does not want a medal; he wants to speak up. It is a freedom for which he fought with the weaponry that is responsible for its loss.

According to Oboler, Trumbo’s story “has even greater emotional impact” on the air because, by virtue of being “transformed into living speech,” the soldier’s words attain an “almost unendurable reality.” Johnny does not address the audience, but is overheard in his desperate attempt to make himself understood by the hospital staff and visitors, the living beings he senses only through the vibrations of their movements.

Oboler was particularly impressed by the scenes in which the “blind, deaf and dumb soldier learns to recognize the approach of the nurse by the vibrations of her footsteps coming up through the bedsprings and reacting against his skin.” It is a cruel irony that appeals to the melodramatist: a man who nearly lost all his senses now tries to make others come to theirs.

Unlike the 1971 movie adaptation, however, “Johnny Got His Gun” was produced at a time when speaking up against war was neither daring nor idealistic. Indeed, most intellectuals warned against a false peace, whereas to isolationists, who didn’t mind dealing with fascists overseas, keeping out of it was literally good for business.

Oboler was no pacifist; soon he would distance himself from “Johnny” and advocate instead the stirring of “hate” as being instrumental in motivating the masses in wartime. “Do not tell me that the people are disillusioned because of our past sins, our ‘Johnny Got His Guns,’ and so on, and that they need a dream of the new world before they are going to fight,” Oboler argued; “anger is what people want. And they want hate, the hate of a determined people who are going to kill and must kill to win this war.” That mass of “living flesh” in the hospital bed had made his appeal in vain.

New generations of Johnnies are getting their guns. No one hands us a voice; that we have to find for ourselves and raise while we may.

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