Reflections on “Catch-22”

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Even if you’ve never read Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22, you probably know the basic setup. American bomber crews in Italy in World War Two face not just deadly German flak, but the absurd military logic that forces them to keep flying missions even as their commanding officer keeps extending the number required for a complete tour.

The number of missions goes up to 40, then 50, then 60. Any sane person could see where this was going and would try to get out. And there does seem to be a way out. Any crew member could be grounded for reasons of insanity. But:

There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

The result was a logic-chopping paradox. Any pilot who willingly flew more missions was crazy and didn’t have to; anyone who refused was sane and had to.

I had never read Catch-22 until this month, and I expected it to be a romp. Comedy this madcap, even if dark, dark usually lopes along. And, the machinery that advances the plot–American B-25 bombers and German 88-mm guns–could and did strike with slashing speed. The orgies and drinking sprees that punctuate Catch-22 are the same swirling blurs of frenzy they are in real life, occurring too fast to fix any memorial records of the events.

So it came as a surprise when I found myself reading slowly and savoring certain passages. Some days I only read 20 pages at a time. I found myself pausing to ruminate connections to ideas both prophetic and antecedent.

Heller’s most obvious debt is to Lewis Carroll. Page after page, Heller depicts the logic of war and bureaucracy as a baffling hall of mirrors. The feeling of being through the looking glass is evoked by almost every character and plot device. Major Major will only agree to meetings in his office when he is out of his office. Lieutenant Colonel Korn only allows airmen who ask no questions to ask questions. The atheist chaplain’s assistant berates the chaplain for underselling God. Perhaps my favorite is General Peckem’s guidance to his new executive officer: “While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a lot of it.”

Carroll spun a fantasy in which illogic became systematic in a made-up world. Heller showed illogic to be the foundational requirement for making modern war in the actual world.

Indeed, the case is there to be made that Heller normalized the anti-war novel. The Good Soldier Schweik, published in 1923 (1930 in English), was arguably the first in this class, and the Lost Generation produced a string of novels and memoirs throughout the 1920s and -30s that took the glory out of war and showcased its moral desolation. But after Heller, this view of war would be the only one a serious novel could take. Christopher Hitchens notes that the timing of Catch-22, published in 1961, “had an unusual felicity, helping to curtain-raise what nobody knew would be The Sixties.” True, but this piquant note only catches half of Heller’s significance; his drumbeat message that war is a failure of the human spirit helped create the 1960s; it didn’t just land at their doorstep.

Along these lines, it would be going too far to say that Heller’s friend Kurt Vonnegut would not have been able in 1969 to publish Slaughterhouse-Five, another great anti-war novel, without Catch-22 as prologue. But it seems plausible that a reading public would not have made it through Vonnegut’s bizarre plot devices of time travel and alien abduction had they not been softened up by Heller’s more prosaic absurdities.

A handful of writers have, over long ages, made the argument that war is morally wrong. The case is easily grasped. But it would not be until Thomas Pynchon in 1973 put Dadaist elements and a cockeyed existentialism into the blender of Postmodernism to produce Gravity’s Rainbow that the argument would emerge that war violates something even deeper in the human person than morality–some Kantian substrate of order that creates the very possibility of morality. Gravity’s Rainbow deranges this invisible foundation of the human person.

And Heller preceded Pynchon in this project. As with Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five, I cannot say the Gravity’s Rainbow could not have been written without Catch-22, but clearly Pynchon owes Heller a large debt. The whole idea of oddly-named U.S. servicemen hurrying across war-warped Europe on hectic, outlandish missions of unknown authorship and opaque objectives is to be found first in Catch-22. The mess NCO Milo Minderbinder operates a syndicate of black-marketeering air freight services while he himself serves as mayor of several European cities and potentate of several post-Ottoman territories. Is this Heller stretching reality or bending it? The point–which Pynchon took to new heights (or depths)–is that we are not supposed to know.

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