April 30, 2009
What You Ask For Is Against Regulations
“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.” Such an utterance by Michael
Servetus could have very well been written by Dalton Trumbo, and have been given a happy home in
his anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Throughout the novel, I found numerous remarks pertaining
to the main character, Joe, and his unfortunate bomb accident which included his face and limbs to be
completely removed. With his last thought being the experience of his discombobulated body, Joe
awakens to find himself in his sorry state, only being able to live through his thoughts and memories.
Joe's morose story is explained in What You Ask For, through its plethora of intricate connections from
the book, to these several heart-warming/breaking songs.
Jose Gonzalez's Dead-weight on Velveteen captures Joe's intense feelings of being worthless
early on in the novel. The word dead-weight in the title signifies what he believes he has become once
he has found out his arm has been removed. “How am I going to work now? He's down in bed and
can't say anything and it's his touch luck and we're tired and this is a stinking war anyhow so let's cut
the damned thing of and be done with it” (27.) Joe does not find himself to be useful without his limbs,
obtaining the assumption that he could think of himself as dead-weight. The second verse of Velveteen
continues with Joe's brain activity and the fact that he can still understand. “It's retained in emptiness /
it's not what it seems” (Gozalez.) “It” could be what he has taken from war, his experiences and
possibly advice from war, but “emptiness” possibly means his non-existent voice. Joe does not know
how to converse yet in this part of Johnny. Although, Joe is still alive with his thinking, therefore he
“is not what he seems.” What Joe wants is for the nurses or doctors to “uncover the mystery”
(Gonzalez), Joe's hidden ability to comprehend.
“Vulgar when brought to light / Betray the image” (Gonzalez) connects to Johnny's main
character through his badly injured body. He wishes for people, or nurses specifically, to look at his
frantic tapping as an action of productivity, not only shock or insanity. “He got to thinking this nurse is
keeping me a prisoner. He thought of prisoners...knowing where they were going never smelling the
out air. Never feeling anything but shackles” (181.) Dismally, the nurse sees Joe as needing to be put
to sleep and quited.
The last line of Gonzalez's song reads, “Vulgar the lie.” After the realization of the denial of his
want, Trumbo, through Joe, lectures the reader about war, army, and fighting and the facade they must
uphold. “We are the world we are what makes it go round...you would be hungry naked worms and we
will not die” (234.) These men that fight cannot show weakness. The fact that all men bleed is not the
army's propaganda, rather their propaganda consists of being an unending torment of artillery, power,
and strength that never end up like the “truth” - Joe.
The “truth,” in this case, has much time to reflect and remember past situations in his life. One
of these memories is brilliantly related through Sufjan Stevens' masterpiece, The Predatory Wasp of
The Palisades is Out to Get Us! “Oh, I am not quite sleeping / Oh, I am fast in bed” (Stevens.) While
Joe's mind is wandering in the time of Diane and Bill Harper, he is simply lying in bed. This stanza can
also be compared to Joe's current mental state. Although it may seem he is unconscious or “only
sleeping,” he is most certainly not. “There on the wall in the bedroom creeping / I see a wasp with her
wings outstretched” (Stevens.) In this song lyric, Joe “sees” his glimmer of a moment; the moment
being the wasp, a stinging moment where the reader has no choice but to suspect Diane decided to date
her lover's best friend.
Joe states, while in this memory, that Bill Harper was his best friend (49.) Stevens counterpart
discusses the same topic of best friends breaking hearts. “The state of my heart, he was my best
friend / I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed” (Stevens.) “He remembered again the rage he felt
when Bill Harper told him Diane had spent the night with Glen Hogan...He stood up...and hit Bill
Harper and knocked him down...” (49.) Swaggered and swayed could represent the fight or departure
of these two ex-best friends that took place in Johnny. “Terrible sting and terrible storm” (Stevens) is
the equivalent to Joe's discovery of Diane's new flame. “Pretty soon she was kissing this guy...It was
Bill Harper” (52.) Self-explanatory, “stinging” is Joe's cognizance to Bill Harper and Diane's
relationship, “storm” consisting of the anger he undoubtedly feels throughout this discovery. In my
opinion, Joe takes on the aura of “quite storm,” for his thoughts do not seem that of a raging person, but
more of one harboring remorse. “People would ask why don't I see you and Diane together anymore?
And there would be nothing he could say” (53.) Joe's soft demeanor, even when seeing his ex-girl
friend kiss his a guy that he had held near to his heart, is extremely commendable.
Along the same lines as soft and pacifistic, The Decemberists' Red Right Ankle is beautifully
composed, fitting each and every curve of Trumbo's piece of literature. “This is the story of your red
right ankle / and how it came to meet your leg” (Meloy) is possibly a metaphor for war-time
companionship. Seeing as Johnny Got His Gun is a war novel, the similarities are endless. “And how
the muscle, bone, and sinews tangled” (Meloy) represent the actual loss of limbs, or how the loss of a
comrade is of equal proportion to loosing a limb, a piece of the body that is used for one's balance and
Picking apart the rest of the song title, the color red possesses several symbolic meanings,
including love, possibly for Kareen, blood, emergency, and hell. The latter three all deal with the
experience of war in the rawest form possible. Taking “right” into consideration is very interesting; the
right side of one's body is controlled by the left part of the brain. This part of the brain has been known
as the “divine” and “powerful” side. Could this possibly conjoin with the inference that Joe is a “left
Although in the beginning of The Living chapter, Joe cajoled about numbers, his reminiscences
are the most reoccurring base of the novel. Another one of Meloy's lyrics hits home the
“companionship” mentality during wartime. “Oh adhere to me / for we are bound by symmetry / And
whatever differences our lives have been / We together make a limb” (Meloy.) In this case, the soldier's
adhere to each other. Through this bloodshed and fear, they are bound together, and even if they are
different, they make up a company. Another evaluation abides in the analogy of the limb being
humanity. We are all humans, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, and the illogic encompassing
warfare. Trumbo writes about this atrocity through Joe's thoughts. “There are lots of idealists around
who will say have we got so low that nothing is precious but life” (114.) What Trumbo is prevaricating
is the stupidity in war. “What's noble about being dead? Cause when you're dead mister...it's over”
(119.) Joe definitely is the poster-child for no war.
Gypsy uncles have no place in Trumbo's Johnny, however, the next verse calls for Kareen, and
Joe's wonderment about her. “In the picture in your head” (Meloy.) Joe seems to keep the picture of
Kareen in his head very well by her frequenting Joe's memories. “They slept with his arm around her
or her's nestled tight against one another...” (144.) Attached to this, Joe would always be able to keep
the secret of aging from Kareen. “And remember how you found the key / to his hideout in the
Pyrenees / But you wanted to keep his secrete safe / so you threw the key away” (Meloy.) Kareen
would never grow older in Joe's memory. “Kareen would never grow old. She was still nineteen. She
would be nineteen forever” (145.)
To complete the circle, Meloy's ending of Red Right Ankle resembles that of the beginning of
the song. “This is the story of the boys who loved you” (Meloy.) Boys stand for Joe's company, or any
general company during any type of war. Numerous guys are mean, or give new soldiers a hard time
out on the field. Some try to befriend, and share advice. Hand in hand with the aforementioned
companionship train of thought, I believe Joe would always remember his fellow troops, as if they are
Even though Joe can no longer wear this type of apparel, Chris Volpe's Shoes highlights the
important sections of Trumbo's war story. “I've been living my whole life like some phrase from the tip
of my tongue” (Volpe.) Joe has lived the life of a soldier and must accept his disfigurement, and along
his vision of retrospect, he finds he does not believe in fighting for an empty cause. “Somebody said
let's go out and fight for liberty and so they went and got killed without ever once thinking about
liberty” (110.) Joe rants about a war against words, in which bodies fall without second guesses.
“Everybody said America was fighting a war for the triumph of decency...” (112.) Joe ponders why he
went to war himself, and realizes he was tricked like the rest. “Oh why the hell did you ever get into
this mess anyhow? Because it wasn't your fight Joe. You never really knew what the fight was all
Joe “doesn't really know how to say it” (Volpe) because his “freedom of speech” was taken
away through the accident. Volpe continues on, correlating perfectly to Johnny. “I roam alone and
restless / A ghost through the alley ways” (Volpe.) Joe “roams” through life only being able to feel and
not completely communicate, even after he knows how. A close corollary would be that Joe thinks of
himself somewhat as a ghost, or even worse off. “Maybe it would be a lot better if you were dead and
buried...” (24.) Promoting Volpe, Joe could easily find himself in this exact state of mind. “You might
feel my touch / A cold breeze against your skin / But you'll just unroll your shirt sleeves and shiver and
move on your way again” (Volpe.) Joe's “touch” easily represents his break through to the
communicating world. After his Morse Code stint, his “touch,” or “cold breeze” could be the effect Joe
had on the nurse and the doctor, or whomever started to respond in Morse Code back (238.) Just like
in the novel, Shoes continues with the line, “But you'll just unroll your shirt sleeves end / shiver and
move on your way again” (Volpe.) The doctors shut Joe up with the needle in the arm treatment once
more, much like unrolling their shirt sleeves, against Joe's wishes (241.) Or Joe also disliked the idea
of his family and friends coming to visit him, and see what was remaining of him from his injury (76.)
Through this point of view, Joe's memory would be his “touch,” twisting, and turning as a “cold
breeze” to reach his family. Shoes would insinuate that Joe's existing family would not pay any
attention, or after a period of time, possibly forget who he was. This may be more believable in Kareen
or Diane's shoes.
Unlike any other song on this album, Elvis Perkins' warble While You Were Sleeping, takes an
entire one hundred-eighty degree spin, turning the song to fall upon a character other than Joe for a
change. While Joe is incapacitated, he does not truly notice every single thing that is happening. This
time difference is proven; Joe discusses the number of years he counted himself, that passed while he
had no eyesight, no mouth, no ears, and only his skin to feel (99.) “He may have even lost a year or
two” (127.) “While you were sleeping / the babies grew / the stars shined and the shadows moved”
(Perkins.) Figuratively meaning “sleeping,” Joe does not know everything that has occurred. Who
notices the little things going on would be a nurse, possibly the one that wishes him “Merry Christmas”
(198.) This nurse, with her intuitive thinking skills and caring heart, would be the best fit. I can see
her sitting next to Joe in his hospital room, writing letters on his chest about all that has developed over
the months and years.
The nurses also carried responses of the length of the war and casualties it left behind. Perkins
illustrates this in While You Were Sleeping. “While you were sleeping / I tossed and I turned / 'til I
closed my eyes / but the future burned / through the planet turned a hair gray / the earth sighed / he
ocean rose and sang about decay...” (Perkins.) Every word points to how even though Joe cannot fight,
see, or hear this war, it is still continuing. The continuation of war is what the nurse notices. Nurses
“tossed and turned” unable to come to terms with Joe's condition. “One of [the nurses] turned and ran
out of the room and didn't come back” (143.) This shows just how difficult it is to turn slide war to the
back burner when it is what you deal with as a living. Nurses also wait for a “day of sunshine.” “So I
waited for the riddled sky / to be solved again by sunrise” (Perkins.) Reading in between the lines of
Joe's anti-war rants, one could tell he wanted this over as soon as possible (113.) Everybody wanted
this war to be over; no body finds war “fun.” They wanted it to end, and so people “waited” for the sky
to clear of bullets (riddled in bullets), so that they could continue their lives without blood. The
author's message of his thoughts on battle were clear throughout the novel.
In Dalton Trumbo's opinion, war is manslaughter for phrases that cannot protect the people. He
is not the only person with such a panorama; Mr. Servetus, as well as numerous other scholars,
philosophers, and professors believed the same message. Johnny Got His Gun exemplified anti-war in
a feel-good-and-bad way. The novel gave readers heights to climb and drops to descend. What You
Asked For attempted to create much of the same thrilling atmosphere as Joe's thoughts stimulated.
Surely the musicians and music choices of today can bring forth the same emotion as Trumbo's work
has been, and will be doing, for years to come.
Gonzalez, Jose. Veneer. Mute Corporation, 2006
Perkins, Elvis. Ash Wednesday. Beggars Group, 2007.
The Decemberists. Her Majesty The Decemberists. Kill Rock Stars, 2003.
Stevens, Sufjan. Come on feel the Illinoise. Asthmatic Kitty, 2005.
Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. Bantam Books, 1939.
Volpe, Chris. Refugee Blues. 2005.