The Public Humanist

Johnny Got His Gun: Thoughts on Art, War, and Community

Arts writer Phillipa Pitts recently contributed a blog column that resonated with me; here’s an excerpt:

Art plays many roles in society and, at different times, can speak to issues in areas such as religion, science, politics, and history. Whether introducing an international form of movement to the dance scene, putting a modern spin on Mozart or Bach, or providing a visual interpretation of the effects of war, the arts can provide thought-provoking commentary and innovative perspectives on a vast array of global ideas. Arts organizations should, therefore, play the part of illuminator, conveying the power of art in the discourse of complex subjects. In doing so, arts organizations can exist to broaden the horizons of their communities by encouraging analytical thinking and fostering understanding of different opinions and ideas. Moreover, arts organizations can be more participatory in their own communities by bringing art into the public.

I think a lot about the role of art in community. When Kevin Maroney came to Old Deerfield Productions with the idea to present Johnny Got His Gun I felt the potential of art connecting with society in a healing way. I think we all have feelings about war and an awareness of the plight of returning soldiers from wars, past and present. Here was the opportunity to open our work to new audiences and create bridges between folks that might not connect otherwise. Johnny is an emotionally powerful, tour de force play that will have a deep impact on an audience. What would happen if we invited a group of friends to talk about the issues that arise from the experience of the themes of the play?

book_cover_lm_pieceI immediately thought of our dear friends, Bob and Lee Woodruff who have a unique perspective on those themes. Bob is the former ABC World News Tonight anchor who was wounded while reporting from Iraq and sustained the same kind of brain injuries that are so prevalent among returning soldiers now. He is also the founder of The Bob Woodruff Foundation, a national nonprofit that helps ensure our nation’s injured service members, veterans and their families return to a home front ready to support them ( His wife Lee Woodruff, is a best selling author (Those We Love Most and In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, co-written by Bob Woodruff), a well known public speaker, and a CBS Morning Show correspondent. It’s beyond our dreams that Bob and Lee somehow found a single day in their busy, world-traveling lives to come to the Valley for this event.

What would it be like to have a diverse panel of folks with very different experiences of war sharing their points of view? Kevin and I got together and thought of whom among our friends who might be right for the task. In addition to Bob and Lee we were honored that David Pakman, progressive radio and television program host; Buz Eisenberg, attorney for detainees at Guantanamo; Kathy Belanger, whose son Greg was one of the first soldiers killed in Iraq; Lieutenant Colonel Hank Detering, USMC Vietnam veteran; and Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, Senior Pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church and an activist in movements for social and political change since 1970. All agreed to participate.

Bob has said of his role on the panel, “I will take the opportunity to talk about journalism and the new kinds of asymmetrical wars that have become part of modern warfare. We have many new powerful weapons fighting insurgents on the sand and because of that we don’t know where the danger is. When Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and killed we changed our approach. For realistic safety we need to embed with the military to witness the war but it is still unclear if that means either balanced reporting or unfairly influenced. I’m also interested in the question of how we define the word ‘victory.’”

Hank Detering brings his years of reflection on the effects of war as a Vietnam Vet, “Many of them [returning soldiers], like Joe Bonham, are amputees, double, even triple amputees. Today’s veterans are volunteers and almost all are high school graduates. And, unlike Johnny, many of today’s severely wounded veterans are proud of their service and want to remain in the military. A few will get their wish, but sadly most of them will not. Many of them will be living out their lives in our Veterans’ Hospitals. Initially they receive a great deal of attention and support, but over time that will fade away. I would like to talk about the challenges they face and what we can do to help them in the long-term.”

Let me share a little about the play itself. This is a hard-hitting piece by Dalton Trumbo, the black listed anti-war writer that has as deep an impact today as it did in 1940. Perhaps more, as we face the challenges of so many more of our soldiers coming home with injuries. The protagonist Joe comes back from WWI a shattered person alone in his shell of a body. The visceral experience of seeing the world through his sensibilities is one that is hard to forget. Nico Lawson, who plays the tour de force leading role of Joe, is an actor I worked with 12 years ago when I directed The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney as our offering to the community in reflection of the events of September 11. Nico was just 17 years old and played the young soldier Neoptolomus in Heaney’s retelling of the Philoctetes myth. I hadn’t had contact with him for twelve years but knew that he was made for the role. Sure enough, he moved from Montague, MA to New York where he is a successful actor now. He gives the role the passion and power it needs and he is one of our own.

So we offer this event to our community in the spirit of connection and healing. As Bob said so well, “These troops will be forgotten unless we keep giving them love and attention.”

Johnny Got His Gun takes place on May 11 at 7:30 pm at the Wesley Church at 98 North Maple Street in Hadley MA.

Tickets are available at and are $10, $12, and $20. Free tickets for Veterans are available at

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