Catch 22 – H3a Reading Group Review, 5 October 2011

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

For some of us, the choice of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 afforded an opportunity for a spot of “time travel”, back to the 1960s and 1970s. Revisiting the novel took us back to the extraordinary decades in which we grew up.

“Like George Orwell with 1984, Heller captured a key concept with the title of his novel, Catch 22 – giving the English language a popular new phrase in the process.

The grimly ironic comic novel that describes a Second World War airman’s struggle to avoid the horrors of combat struck a chord not just with those who’d fought but with anyone who had ever felt helpless in the face of a capricious bureaucracy”.

Quote from BBC Obituary of Joseph Heller 14 December 1999

Omnipresent in our young lives was war or the threat of war.   Too young to remember it ourselves, we “experienced” World War II, its horrors, heroics and deprivations, vicariously through the recollections of our parents and through the glamorized and sanitized images of war in the cinema and on our black and white televisions.  Our war was the Cold War, the ideological war between capitalism and communism, freedom and totalitarianism, between the American and Russian super-powers.   Whether it was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the struggle for superiority in outer space, the erection of the first barbed wire Berlin Wall, or the early involvement of America in Vietnam, for us the Cold War was a very hot issue. Above and around and pervading every aspect of our lives was the “new” threat of nuclear war and the possible total annihilation of humankind at any moment.

On 10th November 1961 Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 burst upon an already confused and confusing world.

For those of us who read his novel in the 1960s and 1970s, one thing we all recalled was the joy of discovering in Joseph Heller a hero, someone who was prepared to challenge authority and bureaucracy and power.   His huge attraction was the fact that he was prepared to satirise those who operated the levers of power, showing them to be anything but competent;  he drew us to him because he used humour and horror in equal measure to debunk the idea that somehow war was honourable and heroic.   As someone said, he was trying to show us  “how war might look to someone moderately sane”.  And we were the moderately sane ones, of course, and could see its absurdity in all its ludicrous detail.

One member said that, for her, Catch 22 was a revelation:  it was when she first realised the need to be suspicious of unquestioning acceptance of authority.    Another member, who was in the Royal Air Force at that time, recalled feeling Joseph Heller was speaking directly to him, describing the very same “Catch 22s” of military life that he experienced in his early  days  in the military.   For him, having been through the process of being deconstructed and reconstructed by military training, the notion of challenging authority was exciting and even dangerous and the book left a powerful impression on him.

(He had to admit, though, that Catch 22 had defeated him the second time round. The revelations of absurd Catch 22s that had him cheering the author in the 1960s had somehow morphed into “Well, that’s just how life is – get used to it” by the time his own 60s had arrived)

Another member noted how the themes of the book had come back again and again in the 50 years since it was first published.    Perhaps this emphasises one of the quite pessimistic but probably realistic messages of Catch 22, quoted by one member, that somehow war is inevitable, that wars will never end as long as anyone remains alive to fight for himself or his country.  Although about World War II, it could equally well have been written about the wars in  Vietnam, Lebanon, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and right up to the present day with the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

For many, the book’s revelation of the incompetence of the American military, at the time probably the mightiest military machine in history, came as something of a shock.   Another was both shocked and amused when she noted that the crazy dialogue and whacky logic was being propounded by officers who were supposed to be the leaders.    Some wondered how the book had been received by the military and it was suggested that they were probably unmoved by it, believing that this writing was by a “mere civilian” and that civilians really did not understand the business of war.

We raised the question of whether the lack of any chronological order had posed a problem for the group but it was decided that in the 50 years since the book was realised we have all become very accustomed to coming into a story half way through and the events being revealed to us through flashbacks and time shifts.

One member said she wished the story could have been condensed to her personal 5 highlights:

  • The description of the bombing run to Bologna
  • The description of Snowden’s injuries
  • The description of Dobbs totally wreckless flying
  • The description of Orr’s cleverness in adapting and improving his living space
  • The description of the dilapidated city of Rome.

Several members talked about the dehumanising effects of war on soldiers and equally the dangers of modern warfare where much of the fighting is done remotely – no longer do warriors face those people they are about to kill.

Another quoted words which had made a particular impression on her:

“Catch 22 is the unwritten law which empowers the authorities to revoke your rights whenever it suits their cruel whims; it is in short, the principle of absolute evil in a malevolent, mechanical and incompetent world.  Because of Catch 22 justice is mocked, the innocent are victimized, and Yossarian’s squadron is forced to fly more than double the number of missions prescribed by
Air Force code.

We discussed the nature of contemporary war and the blurring of distinctions between reality and, say, computer games, where highly intelligent, educated soldiers fight the enemy through computer screens and remotely controlled drones.

We talked about the idea of sending old men off to fight wars, or making it compulsory for heads of state to lead their armies into battle;  or ensuring that the sons and daughters of politicians be compelled to go off to war.

We discussed the way that, throughout history, generals have sought to distract soldiers from the horrors of what they are actually required to do, often pointless things like painting coal black, just to keep the soldiers busy. One member pointed out this was also true in the time of Pliny.

Overall, the group seemed to have enjoyed reading Catch 22 and found much to relate to the present day.

Joseph Heller was born in Coney Island, New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a bakery van driver.

in 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, aged 19, after America entered World War II (1939–45; Two years later he was sent to Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, where he flew sixty combat missions as a fighter pilot, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. It is generally agreed that Heller’s war years in the Mediterranean had only a minimal impact on the creation of Catch-22.

After the war he resumed his education at American universities, and spent a year at St Catherine’s College, Oxford as a Fulbright Scholar.

He died in 1999.

Quotes about War

“People go to fight wars because they don’t understand the seriousness of what they’re doing.”
Joseph Heller

“No one ever won a war by dying for his country.   He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.”
General George S Patton

“One of the main reasons that it is so easy to march men off to war is that each of them feels sorry for the man next to him who will die”
Ernest Becker

“The condition of Man….. is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”
Thomas Hobbes

“Being in the Army is like being in the Boy Scouts, except that the Boy Scouts have adult supervision”
Blake Clark

“War does not determine who is right, only who is left”
Bertrand Russell

“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.”
M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter

“If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again be any war.”
Pentagon official explaining why the U.S. military censored graphic footage from the Gulf War

“In war, truth is the first casualty.”

“I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”
George McGovern

“Liberty and democracy become unholy when their hands are dyed red with innocent blood.”
Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War, 1948

“We are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity.”
Author Unknown

“What is absurd and monstrous about war is that men who have no personal quarrel should be trained to murder one another in cold blood.”
Aldous Huxley

“Older men declare war.  But it is the youth that must fight and die.”
Herbert Hoover

“Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private individuals.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1955

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