Comparing the Contemporary: The Carnival of War

by Valentina Salvatierra

The new ‘Comparing the Contemporary’ group is organised by Valentina Salvatierra (MA Contemporary Literature and Culture) and Carmela Morgillo (MA Modern and Contemporary Literature). In its first session (2 February), the group considered the way in which modern warfare is communicated in literary texts from different countries and decades. Marinetti’s ‘Futurist Manifesto’ (1909) glorifies war as a form of purification, whereas texts written after the first great war of the century shift the focus and present it as a traumatic experience. This applies to Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), and Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poem, ‘Soldiers’ (1918).

A key point we raised here is that at least in some sense the war experience is equally traumatic for all parties. ‘Soldiers’ reckons with the feeling of soldiers on the front, the knowledge they may not come back alive, and therefore grapples with an experience not unlike the one depicted by Remarque. Regarding Remarque’s novel, we also noted that in terms of both prose and message it could read like English war literature and also shared concerns with E.E. Cummings’s work, such as the degradation of human identity brought about by war. Rather than confirming the glorious nature of war, then, All Quiet on the Western Front conveys a sense of loss at the personal level that is parallelled in literatures of the ‘winning’ side – transmitting the idea that no side really wins in a war.

Our discussion also considered the motivations for going to war, at the personal and national levels. On one hand, the soldiers who enlisted often did not understand the trauma they were likely to undergo or the wider political context – something that is seen in both Trumbo’s introduction to Johnny Got His Gun and in Remarque’s novel. The various nations offer varying justifications for war. We critiqued the idea contained in Henry Kissinger’s writings on US foreign policy that whereas Germany might go to war for power, the US goes to war in order to bring freedom to other countries. This notion is countered by the concept of soft power: whilst the US might not be after the hard power of conquered territories, perhaps it is seeking soft power as expressed in political and cultural influence. Crucially, soft power can be harder to combat because it is less evident, and finds expression for instance in media portrayals rather than in military power. Among other things, media can perpetuate the idea of American exceptionalism, its ‘special mission’ in the global order, and use it to justify war. Meanwhile, Italy had very different historical motivations related to war as a means to prove its international value, and we had an interesting discussion about potential parallels between Nazi propaganda, US propaganda, and the Italian campaign led by Gabrielle D’Anunzio to join World War I.

We further analysed Dalton Trumbo’s novel in the context of his biography, as an exponent of a Western socialist perspective who was blacklisted in the US and wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. His screenplays include the apparently apolitical Roman Holiday, which we observed could be read as containing socialist ideas in the contrast between aristocratic life and the excitement of common people’s life. Its setting in Italy, also, could be linked to socialism as it was the Western bloc country where this political tendency was most active. Johnny Got His Gun, meanwhile, is more explicitly socialist in its attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, those that are ignored by power. The style of the novel itself is crucial in transmitting this isolation. We remarked on the distinction of this use of the stream of consciousness as a tool of political, outwardly directed action, rather than the more familiar use of stream of consciousness as a device to explore a character’s interiority. Lastly, regarding Trumbo’s socialism, we observed that the novel has also been read as a pacifist one; while socialism and pacifism can sometimes coincide, this is not necessarily so. Nonetheless, the difference between socialist ideals of revolution and the violence of war might lie in socialism’s direction of violence (theoretically) towards destroying internal power structures rather than to international conflict.

Also in relation to Trumbo’s work, Carmela Morgillo explained the insights of Dauterich’s secondary text, ‘Johnny Got His Gun and Working Class Students: Using Rhetorical Analysis to Intellectualize Pacifism’ (2010), which discussed how to teach this text to working class US students. Whereas the pacifist message fell flat, the text became more compelling for students when read as dealing with the oppression of the lower classes by the elites of a country. In a contemporary parallel, we mentioned the film Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and how it revealed that some soldiers were going to fight in Iraq because of the promise of college funding once they returned. In both World War I and the 21st century ‘war on terror’, the lack of options brought about by marginality is often what motivates young and uneducated people to participate. We also discussed that the marginality and lack of options revealed in Johnny Got His Gun might be controversial precisely because it can be extrapolated to wider contexts and read as a general indictment of the ‘American Dream’. We mentioned Kathryn Hume’s American Dream, American Nightmare (2000) as a work that explores in greater detail the breakdown of an individualist and capitalist ‘dream’ that usually fails to materialize, and also highlighted the rather nightmarish quality of Johnny Got His Gun.

Moving towards a conclusion, we observed that the post-war works discussed seemed to say that war is trauma, everywhere, for everyone. Trumbo also communicates, from this starting point, that the real conflict is between the masses forced to fight a senseless war and the establishment that benefits economically and politically from this trauma. The question was raised about the possibility of some wars being justified or ‘good’, such as World War II in terms of bringing the Holocaust to an end. Yet even in wars that are backed up by ideas of protecting life or restoring freedom, the individual acts and battles continue to be traumatic. In that sense, possible moral justification does not diminish the brutality of modern warfare. Atrocities such as the Katyn massacre (1940), committed by the Soviets and initially blamed on the Nazis, not to mention the two atomic bombs in Japan, are evidence that even the supposedly ‘good’ side commits atrocities and mass destruction. In this lens, the two later works considered show that works which glorify war (such as the Futurist manifesto) simply veil the brutality and trauma of it, maintaining a fiction that has been used to exploit the unsuspecting masses of more than one country.

We look forward to welcoming all interested Birkbeck BA, MA and PhD students to participate in future sessions. Get in touch with Valentina Salvatierra (MA Contemporary Literature & Culture, vsalvatierrad @ in order to sign up for emails and get access to the shared folder where texts will be uploaded whenever possible. If you wish to chair a session or get involved in the organisation of the group, we would love to hear from you.



Primary texts

Erich Maria Remarque (1929) All Quiet on the Western Front (chapter 11)

Dalton Trumbo (1939) Johnny Got His Gun (author’s introduction, chapter 20)

Secondary texts

Kissinger, Henry, Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster 2011).

Dauterich, Ed. ‘Johnny Got His Gun and Working Class Students: Using Rhetorical Analysis to Intellectualize Pacifism'. Peace Research, 42 (2010 1/2) pp. 127-41.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso, “The Futurist Manifesto”, (1909). ull text:


Image from Archives New Zealand, used under a CC BY 2.0 licence.

Author: CCL

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