Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Trumbo uses Joe Bonham to personify and capture the horror of war by emphasizing what is lost on the battlefield. He continually reinforces the theme of loss in Bonham’s life, from the loss of time to Bonham’s ultimate inability to have the power for self-destruction. By emphasizing the sensory images of his past life, largely drawn with sound and smell imagery, Trumbo demonstrates the loss from the wounds that dehumanize and isolate Bonham. Bonham’s isolation is the ultimate loss.

Trumbo also uses sensory details to underline his political themes. Mixing images in sound collages, Trumbo mocks patriotism and points to the youthfulness of soldiers. Visual images are ironic parodies of propaganda. For example, when the first airplanes are introduced as machines of peace, love, and understanding, they ultimately become instruments of war.

Trumbo’s antiwar messages are often overt in the narrative, as when the novelist lists other war atrocities in Joe’s memory to demonstrate he is not unique. After Bonham realizes that he is among the dead, he breaks into didactic statements on war, commenting that abstractions such as liberty, democracy, and honor are concepts not worthy of a man’s life. If a corpse were asked to choose between honor and life, Joe asserts, it would choose life. He says no one can speak for the dead or sanctify the dead. He is angered when a medal is placed on his chest. There is no principle larger than life, and no man is a coward for refusing to fight. These principles, all spoken with Bonham’s voice, are often awkwardly inserted into the narrative, and these passages are a weakness in the novel.

Sternly stated in the novel’s closing passages is the theme that war will not end, despite the strong indictment of Bonham’s story. Historical images, from Bonham’s youth to his surreal dreams as a Carthaginian slave, clearly place Bonham in a stream of warriors of the past and present. His sermon on the future reinforces Trumbo’s theme that Bonham, while an individual in a unique position, is but one war story in a never-ending series of atrocities.