Publisher's note * Catch-22: Revisited
He is an entrepreneur so ruthless he deprives his fellow soldiers of fresh food, new equipment, even parachutes to horrified pilots and crewmen preparing to jump chuteless from burning planes.
Milo has high-ranking officers, pol-iticians and corporate giants in his pocket, seeing war solely as an opportunity to get rich, while the common soldier is expendable, mere cannon fodder.
A story with leaders not unlike today’s vultures running the war in Iraq
By Dell Franklin
The course of recent events in both America and the world leads one to believe it is time to either read, or re-read the novel, “Catch--22,” a scathing mixture of satire, irony and farce that has no peer in 20th-century literature in its depiction of the follies and tragedies of humankind. No writer combined the darkest depths of chilling, Dostoevsky-like reality and the modern cinematic zaniness of the Marx brothers like its author, Joseph Heller. Published in 1961, this book was possibly more poignant to me because I did not read it as a re-bellious, impressionable college student, but as an Army PFC stationed thousands of miles from home, more or less curtained off from the goings on in America and elsewhere.
I remember troops coming over to my bunk as I roared with belly laughter, wanting to know WHAT I was reading. A comedy? Not exactly. I had difficulty explaining that the book was a lot of things: anti--war tract, morality play, lesson on human nature, black comedy, dynamic stylistic originality, stream-of-consciousness sentences in some sections so overwhelming and at times surreal that I had to re-read them several times—for meaning, depth and general awe of such genius wordsmithing. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more disturbing and inspiring book, nor one as entertaining.
Almost every character (taken from WWII) has a stunning resemblance to members of today’s administration, government and military forces. Colonel Cathcart, the blustery, intimidating, incompetent leader of a bomber base on a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, perfectly fits the swashbuckling, gunslinger image of President Bush as he parrots the advice and decisions of his immediate subordinate, Lt. Col. Korn, a heartless, Machiavellian Dick Cheney. When pilots and bomber squadron crewmen are long past their limit of dan-gerous, deadly missions over Italy (guys go down every mission, little by little) and are slated to go home, these two men in conjunction raise the number over and over (like today’s American troops getting extended and doing multiple stints in Iraq) until they are at the breaking point—crazed, depressed, suicidal, and, like the novel’s hero and pro-tagonist, Yossarian, thinking up ways to get in the hospital and stay in the hospital, and, best of all, deserting. The overall feeling of powerlessness and fear in these men sparks irrational behavior that is the crux of the story (foreshadowing the torture at Abu Ghraib?).
All the while, Lt. Milo Minderbinder (who reminds us of war profiteering vultures like the ones from Halliburton) goes to extremes to make money off anybody on or near base—in the Army, in the war theater and in surrounding countries. He is an entrepreneur so ruthless he deprives his fellow soldiers of fresh food, new equipment, even parachutes to horrified pilots and crewmen preparing to jump chuteless from burning planes (similar to the lack of armor plates for combat vehicles and body armor for combat troops in Iraq) to make a profit. In collusion with officers like Cathcart and Korn, he even bombs and strafes his own air base, killing his own men! Milo has high-ranking officers, pol-iticians and corporate giants in his pocket, seeing war solely as an opportunity to get rich, while the common soldier is expendable, mere cannon fodder.
Amidst all this, Cathcart and Korn are handing out loyalty oaths to be signed by all those stationed on the base, and threatens them with more missions and even personal disaster if they don’t sign (like the calling of Americans as traitors if they protest the Iraq war.)
Sinister CID agents keep tabs on everybody on base: Yossarian’s best line comes near the end of the book when an altruistic fellow officer, Major Danby, tries to parry his increasing, demented cynicism: “I see people cashing in…on every decent impulse and every human tragedy” (Bush using 9/11 over and over again for political gain).
When Yossarian, who has visited the hospital previously on fake illnesses to get out of missions, comes back from an especially gory and grisly flight in which a young gunner, Snowden, disgorges his entire insides after getting shot, he refuses to fly any more and takes off all his clothes (which are saturated with Snowden’s blood and intestines) and sits naked on a tree limb, refusing to come down.
Everybody knows Yossarian is crazy now. But being so crazy that he does not want to fly any more missions means he’s sane, according to Army psychiatrists, and this catch is Catch-22. The other catch is if you want to fly missions you’re even crazier, and more power to you. Go fly those missions, like a good soldier.
Milo Minderbinder, who has expanded his largess into a vast conglomerate called M & M Enterprises, tries to lure Yossarian out of the tree with some chocolate covered cotton, which Yossarian spits out. He tries to bribe Yossarian (through Cathcart and Korn, who do not want to look bad to the top brass), and Yossarian finally seals a deal (after chickening out and turning tail on a mission) where they make him a hero and pin a medal on him while he remains nude. (This is reminiscent of Bush pinning medals on two abysmal failures in Iraq—George Tenant and Paul Bremer.)
The book is rich with multiple characters, plots, intrigues, themes. Descriptions of bombing missions are hair-raising, as if the misery inflicted both savagely and traumatically on Italy and its civilian citizens. There are characters like Major Major who is made a major because the Army doesn’t know what to do with him (he’s woe-fully incompetent), and, since his name is Major Major, why not name him Major Major Major? Nobody leading this fiasco has the slightest concept of reality, or idea of what is going on. As the insanity, death, fractured morale spirals out of control, Cathcart and Korn continue their disastrous strategy as well as their barrage of intimidation and propaganda and outright lying as they torture their own men, increasing the missions.
In the end, when Yossarian is prepared to desert, the well mean-ing Major Danby, trying to stop him, answers Yossarian’s accusation that people are “cashing in on every decent impulse and human tragedy.”
“But you must try not to think about that,” Danby insists. “And you must try not to let it upset you.”
“Oh, it doesn’t really upset me,” Yossarian answers. “What does upset me, though, is they think I’m a sucker. They think that they’re smart, and the rest of us are dumb. And you know, Danby, the thought occurs to me right now, for the first time., that maybe they’re right.”
“But you must try not to think of that, too,” argued Danby. “You must think only of the welfare of your country and the dignity of man.”
“Yeah,” Yossarian said.
A minute later he deserts. §
Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.