“Of course a lot of guys were ashamed. 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 lets 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.”
When I was a teenager, I used to watch a channel for alternative music videos pretty much constantly, and they used to play Metallica’s ‘One’ a lot. The video made a huge impression on me, and I would often find myself dwelling on what it must be like to be trapped inside your own mind like that. I knew the video was from a film and that the film was from a book, but it took over a decade for me to pick it up, because I was worried I’d never get it out of my head.
The story tells the tragic tale of Joe Bonham, an extremely young man (much younger than I’d imagined), who leaves his home and his young girlfriend to join the army, basically because that’s what everybody else is doing. During the fighting Johnny is injured and he wakes up in a hospital unable to see. At first he thinks he is only blind, but over time (time that he cannot measure) he learns he can’t see, or move, or hear, or eat and that his arms and legs and face are all gone.
So what do you do when you lose so many of the senses we require to interact with the world? Johnny can think, and to a certain extent can perceive the world around him, but he is alone, with no means of communicating with the people who work so hard to keep him alive. He has no way of telling them that their efforts are a torture worse than death.
This novel was as deeply disturbing as I expected that it would be and it’s message was as clear as crystal. We are so quick to make martyrs of ourselves in the name of wars declared by strangers. And while there is no doubt about the bravery that it requires to risk your life for people you don’t know, is it worth it? Can it ever be worth it when all that you have is your life, and if you’re lucky, your health? No matter how many young people lay down their lives in order to prevent it, there will always be war and death and grief and revenge. You can’t fight fire with fire, you will only ever get burned.