Creativity needs Context

An idea, even an idea of genius, even an idea that is to save millions of people,
never moves of its own accord. It requires a force to fetch it, seize upon it for its own motives,
move it, and often transform it
(Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, 1988)

Grandfather in the Trenches
Arrow shows the man I've never met.

Creativity thrives with context and the context of war is never easy to miss. It is always right around the corner.

Where to start? Maybe with my grandfather. I never knew him because he fell on “The Field of Honor”. I still remember that withered, brownish piece of paper amongst my dad’s family collectibles, sent by the German office of the fallen heroes, or whatever they called themselves.

Here you see him upright in the middle, a tough German WWI soldier sacrificing his life for the Kaiser. Fortunately he didn’t end up like many of his comrades, physically and mentally mutilated without recognition, the ones that American novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo picked up in his novel Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel written in 1938 (published 1939) by and published by J. B. Lippincott company.

This novel I happened to read around the year 1965 in German translation, where it was called “Suess und Ehrenvoll”, or “Sweet and Honourable” in translation. After I had read that novel I knew I would never join the military.

The story goes as follows, recounted by Wikipedia:

Joe Bonham, a young soldier serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell. He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and face, but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body. He tries to die by suffocating himself but he has been given a tracheotomy, which he cannot remove or control.

He successfully attempts to communicate with his doctors by banging his head on his pillow in Morse code. At first he wishes to die, but then he decides that he wants to be put in a glass box and tour the country, to show people the true horrors of war. Neither wish is granted, however, and it is implied that he will live the rest of his natural life in this condition.

As he drifts between reality and fantasy, he remembers his old life with his family and girlfriend, and reflects upon the myths and realities of war. He also forms a bond, of sorts, with a young nurse who senses his plight.

Anyone who had the not so rare opportunity to wake up in an intensive care bed can relate to what it might feel like, not being able to move, to talk, to make contact.

This theme was picked up by many, but I only want to mention the American heavy metal band Metallica, quoting again from Wikipedia :


“One” is a song by the American heavy metal band Metallica. It was released as the fourth and final single from their fourth album …And Justice for All.

“One” was also the band’s first Top 40 hit single, peaking at #35 on the Billboard Hot 100.

It is one of their most popular songs and has remained a permanent live staple since the release of the album. Like “Fade to Black”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and “The Day That Never Comes”, the song starts off slow and clean, but as the song goes on, becomes heavier and faster, leading up to a tapping solo by Kirk Hammett, and a dual guitar solo by Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield.

Despite being a big hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and the music video receiving heavy airplay on MTV, the song itself received very little to no radio airplay, due to its “violent” lyrics and length of over seven minutes.

The song’s theme and lyrics are based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, telling the tale of a soldier whose body is severely damaged by a mortar shell. His arms, legs, eyes, mouth, nose and ears are gone and he is unable to see, speak, smell, or hear. His mind functions perfectly, however, leaving him trapped inside his own body. Trumbo directed the movie adaptation in 1971, from which the footage for the “One” music video is taken.

“One” is a favorite of many Metallica fans, and thus is a fixture of the band’s live shows.

It’s worth following the lyrics on the clip, which pale against the backdrop of the current Guardian article Wikileaks Iraq war logs: every death mapped

Following Latour’s idea of Action Network we might interpret Metallica as a force that fetched Trumbo’s idea, seized upon it for its own motives, moved it, and transformed it, gave it a new impact, and merging it with a contemporary context strengthened the alliances for creative reflection on the futility of war.

Never forget War is a Racket.

As I had said: Not unusual

Experience: I was locked in my own body

‘I couldn’t talk, but I could feel, hear and smell. The only part of my body I could move was my eyelids’


Published by


Communications and Media Senior Lecturer at SAE Byron Bay Australia

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