TO HELLER AND BACK
“Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
The logic of the novel Catch-22 is wild and thoroughly sound, like the logic of sending an 18-year-old to Italy to die for Democracy.
It follows dozens of characters living on and off an Air Force base on the Italian island of Pianosa toward the end of World War II.
Early on, the story is dizzying. It bounces between descriptions of foolhardy, self-contradicting, frustrated men and women. Each character is tragically flawed. There are men like Doc Daneeka, who has no sympathy for his patients because he can’t get over his own hardships, or Major Major Major Major, whose name causes a bug in an IBM machine to rush him up the ranks of the armed forces, but whose realization that leadership is arbitrary causes him to avoid contact with his soldiers at all costs.
The heroes are the few, war-weary men who are sane enough to realize that the war is making them crazy. They’ve flown over forty missions, more than enough to be sent home, but the frail ego of their Colonel causes him to continually raise the number of missions they must fly in an attempt to impress his disinterested higher-ups.
The plot becomes more digestible as the character list diminishes with each man who dies, which they all must do. They must die because if they don’t die, then someone else will simply have to die in their place, and that won’t do any good anyway because they’ll just die during the next mission. Ironically, none of them die at the hands of the enemy. They die in their sleep, disappear, or simply kill each other and themselves.
The only sane man to survive combat is a bombardier named Yossarian who pledges to live forever even if he dies in the attempt. Yossarian is crazy. Every small threat to his life throws him into a murderous rage. He marches backwards so that he can spot potential assassins. He strangles a pilot mid-air to prevent him from flying into danger. He would let any man die in his place, and when asked what would happen if every man felt that way, he says, “Then I would be a fool to feel any differently.”
Catch-22 is as potent an anti-war novel as has ever been written. It’s the World War II version of Johnny Got His Gun, but with legs and arms and faces.
The reviews on the front of my copy say things like, “outrageously funny,” and, “full of belly laughs.” I disagree. The book is heavy with irony, and the writing is whip-crack smart, but most of the humor doesn’t land. I’m not sure it was intended to. The irony only made me squirm.
Anything can be funny. Any trauma can be a joke if held at an arm’s length and angled correctly. Catch-22 takes the traumas of war and lends them a degree of separation from reality by making them absurd, but absurdity is not strong enough to pull these traumas clear of their reality. War is absurd. Making it more absurd only makes it more desperate, futile, and sad.
The absurdity of the camp was symptomatic of its trauma.
For instance, Yossarian receives a medal naked. The scene would be funny, but for the reason he’s naked. He swears to never wear a uniform again after his is covered in the blood of a young man who dies in his arms. His inappropriately timed nakedness is a product of his anguish, and I could not disassociate the two enough to laugh.
The heroes march to their inevitable death at the recursive orders of their stupid, self-involved commanding officers. It is frustrating to watch. When they die, you miss them and wish they hadn’t. If they live, it is only because they are wise enough to be cowards.
One of the few ways they exert power is through sex. Men in this book are constantly hungry for sex, but the sex is violent and destructive. They fall madly in love with prostitutes and nurses, rape them, cry over them, and kill them.
Sexual violence is another symptom of their stress, a vain attempt by the helpless to dominate the powerless.
The term post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] was not used until after the Vietnam War. Though he didn’t have the same term for it when he wrote Catch-22 in 1955, Heller describes the psychological disorder with grit and grace. In fact, Heller’s writing on all fronts is as current today as it was 65 years ago.
Every symptom that psychologists have associated with PTSD is documented with graphic detail through the characters of Catch-22: depression, agitation, hostility, self-destructive tendencies, domestic abuse.
I choked on any laugh that came at the expense of these haunted men. What would be funny was simply sad.