Looking Back at "Catch-22"
This past December, upon hearing that Joseph Heller had just died at the age of seventy-six, James Webb took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, where he delivered himself of a fervent tribute to Catch-22, Heller’s first, best (by far), and still most famous novel. There was nothing peculiar or remarkable in itself about Webb’s gesture; tributes to Heller were appearing everywhere at the same time. And like Webb’s, almost all of them dwelled entirely on Catch-22, which came out in 1961 and which subjected World War II to a satirical treatment whose hilarity was matched only by its savagery. Scarcely a mention was made by anyone of the five lesser novels Heller published in the following thirty-eight years of his life—his seventh is scheduled for posthumous publication in the fall—or of the two plays and the two works of non-fiction he also wrote. (The only exception I came across was a little obituary by David Remnick in the New Yorker that entered a plea for Heller’s second novel, Something Happened)
No doubt many other pieces about Catch-22 will have been produced by the time this one gets into print. No doubt, too, most of them will be as effusive as Webb’s. Indeed, the day before he pronounced it a “masterpiece” and a “great novel,” an appreciation in the Washington Post, run as a sidebar to Heller’s obituary, ended with the similarly confident assertion that Catch-22 would “live forever.”
For all that, however, Webb’s piece was special—and what made it special was that it came from a graduate of the Naval Academy who went on to fight with great bravery as a marine in Vietnam, where he was wounded and much decorated, and who later was appointed Secretary of the Navy by Ronald Reagan. One might have thought that such a person with such a background would have a reservation or two about a book that ridicules war and the military with a relentlessness that must surely have inspired the envy of many a pacifist.
Not a bit of it. So far as Webb is concerned, Catch-22 is without sin of any kind, and its “lasting greatness is beyond dispute.” It is a greatness that lies in the truths Heller reveals about war:
His message . . . was that all wars dehumanize. That few soldiers march happily to their fate. And that once the bullets start to fly, all battlefields become apolitical. For while there may be few atheists in a foxhole, there are even fewer politicians.
This, as we shall soon see, is actually a rather toothless paraphrase of Heller’s far more brutal “message.” Slightly more biting, but still misleading, is Webb’s praise of Catch-22 for having “stripped away cant and hypocrisy from the telling of how difficult it is to serve” in war. In Webb’s judgment, Heller thereby performed a salutary exorcism on the “national mindset that was nothing short of adamant in its insistence on the fatalistic bravado with which our soldiers had faced death” in World War II.
Webb, like Heller, is convinced that this mindset was delusory. But was it? I would concede that it may well have been romantically one-sided, but was it any more unbalanced than Heller’s own mindset, or Webb’s?
To get some notion of what is omitted from Catch-22, let alone from Webb’s sanitized rendering of Heller’s “message,” one need only glance at the work of literature that Heller himself said had exerted (in the words of one obituary notice) “perhaps the longest-lasting impression on him.” This was a prose translation of Homer’s Iliad that he read as a boy, and that inspired in him the ambition to be a writer.
Now it is certainly the case that the side of war upon which Catch-22 dwells exclusively and obsessively—its grisly horrors, and the human pettiness it can elicit—are vividly recorded in the Iliad. (Remember Achilles sulking in his tent and refusing to join in battle because one of his concubines has been taken from him by the commanding general Agamemnon?) But in Homer’s epic, all this is intermingled with the great virtues that war also elicits, and of which the poem sings even more melodiously. These virtues—courage, honor, sacrifice, nobility—also make an occasional appearance in Catch-22, but mainly in order to be given as ferocious a beating by Heller as the one he administers to war itself.
So ferocious, indeed, that no one deeply influenced by this novel would ever be able to understand why a self-professed American pacifist like the philosopher William James could come to believe in the great need for a “moral equivalent of war” in addressing the problems of a society at peace. Furthermore, James insisted,
One cannot meet [the arguments of the militarists] effectively by mere counter-insistency on war’s . . . horror. The horror makes the thrill; and . . . the question is of getting the extremest and supremest out of human nature. . . . The military party denies neither the bestiality nor the horror . . .; it only says that these things tell but half the story.
Even more puzzling to a reader entirely under the sway of Catch-22 would be the remark made by another pacifist philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Sitting in a British jail for having agitated against conscription in World War I, Russell later wrote, “I was tormented by patriotism. The successes of the Germans . . . were horrible to me. I desired the defeat of Germany as ardently as any retired colonel.”
And yet, bewildering as such sentiments might seem to anyone caught up in the worldview of Catch-22, they nevertheless mainly account for the less than enthusiastic reception of the novel when it was first published in 1961. Having become embroiled in the debate over it then, I can testify that one of the reasons for this lack of enthusiasm was precisely the uneasiness caused by its portrayal of World War II.
This was to be expected. In 1961, there were very few people around who took a negative view of the war against Hitler and Nazism; or to state it more strongly, practically everyone thought it had been a just and necessary war and that we as a nation had every reason to be proud of our part in it. To be sure, admitting that they were denigrating Catch-22 because they were offended by its “message” would have violated the literary canons of the day, according to which a work of art was supposed to be judged strictly on aesthetic grounds. Consequently, many of the early reviewers pounced instead on Catch-22‘s literary weaknesses of structure and narrative. The New York Times Book Review, for example, gave it only a short notice on page 50 complaining of its “want of craft and sensibility.”
What kept the novel from getting lost as a result of this largely dismissive reception was that a few critics sprang to its defense. I was one of them. But the line of argument we tended to follow did not focus on war in general or World War II in particular. Forgetting the critical rule that Moby-Dick, whatever symbolic meaning it may have, is first of all about the hunt for a whale, I even claimed that Catch-22 was only “ostensibly” about an air-force squadron in World War II. Its real subject, I maintained, was the nature of American society in the mid-20th century.
Nor was I the only defender of Catch-22 who advanced this interpretation. As participants in a nascent new radicalism, some of us took our cue from an essay by Heller’s younger contemporary and fellow novelist Philip Roth, which lamented that this country sometimes seemed like a gigantic insane asylum that was virtually impossible for the writer of fiction to describe “and then make credible.”1 Heller’s achievement, we argued, was that he had found a way to do just that. And that he should have done it through a portrayal of what was then almost universally regarded as America at its best—here was where World War II came in—rather than firing easy shots at the obvious shortcomings and faults of the country, seemed to us veritably heroic.
This was why my own main criticism of Heller was not that he had defamed World War II but that, instead of carrying this breathtakingly brazen enterprise to its logical conclusion, he had suffered a loss of nerve at the end that did serious damage to the integrity of his novel as a satire.2
As all the world knows by now, the hero of Catch-22 is a bombardier named Yossarian who is convinced that everyone is trying to kill him. This makes various people angry, especially his friend Clevinger, who is serving in the same squadron. Clevinger is a man who believes passionately in many principles and who is also a great patriot:
“No one is trying to kill you,” Clevinger said.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
Clevinger and Yossarian are each certain that the other is crazy. In fact, so far as Yossarian is concerned, everyone is crazy who thinks that any sense can be made out of getting killed. When Yossarian is told that people are dying for their country, he retorts that as far as he can see, the only reason he has to fly more combat missions is that his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, wants to become a general. Colonel Cathcart is therefore his enemy just as surely as the German gunner shooting at him when he drops his bombs.
Everywhere, Yossarian reflects in contemplating the war,
men went mad and were rewarded with flying medals. Boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives.
But Yossarian minds so powerfully that he himself is carried to what might seem the point of madness. Not, however, in Heller’s eyes. There is not the slightest doubt that he means us to regard Yossarian’s paranoia (even though it extends to a nurse in the field hospital who dislikes him and to bus drivers everywhere, all of whom are trying to do him in) not as a disease but as a sensible response to real dangers. For example, we are shown that his diagnosis of Colonel Cathcart—and all the other senior officers whom he also dismisses as insane—is accurate. The madness lies not in him but in them and the system over which they preside.
This system is governed by “Catch-22,” which contains many clauses. The most impressive we learn about when the flight surgeon Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian why he cannot ground a crazy man, despite the fact that the rules require him to ground anyone who is crazy. The reason is that the crazy man must ask to be grounded, but as soon as he asks he can no longer be considered crazy—because, according to Catch-22, “a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind.”
Doc Daneeka’s terror of death is almost as great as Yossarian’s, and his attitude toward the world is correspondingly similar: “Oh I’m not complaining. I know there’s a war on. I know a lot of people are going to suffer for us to win. But why must I be one of them?”
What is the war in Catch-22 all about? For approximately the first three-quarters of this 442-page novel, the only answer anyone ever seems able to offer is that, in an armed conflict between nations, it is a noble thing to give your life for your own. This proposition Heller takes considerable pleasure in ridiculing.
“There are now 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war,” an ancient Italian who has learned the arts of survival tells the idealistic and patriotic nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nately. “Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.” Nately is shocked by such cynicism and tries to argue, but the old man shakes his head wearily. “They’re going to kill you if you don’t watch out, and I can see now that you are not going to watch out.” (As though to nail down his acceptance of the ancient Italian’s perspective, Heller makes sure that this prophecy later comes true.) And in response to Nately’s declaration that “it’s better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees,” the old man tells him that the saying makes more sense if it is turned around to read, “It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees.”
The interesting thing, as I noted at the time in my own review, is that until the novel begins winding down to its conclusion, there is scarcely a mention of Nazism and fascism as evils that might be worth fighting against, or of anything about America that might be worth fighting—never mind dying—for. If Heller had raised any of these considerations earlier, his point of view would have been put under more pressure and a greater degree of resistance than he actually allows it to encounter throughout most of the book.
That he was aware of this evasion becomes obvious from a dialogue between Yossarian and Major Danby (“a gentle, moral, middle-aged idealist”) that takes place in the closing pages. Danby reminds Yossarian that the Cathcarts are not the whole story. “This is not World War I. You must never forget that we’re at war with aggressors who would not let either one of us live if they won.” To which Yossarian replies:
I know that. . . . Christ, Danby, . . . I’ve flown 70 goddam combat missions. Don’t talk to me about fighting to save my country. I’ve been fighting all along to save my country. Now I’m going to fight a little to save myself. . . . From now on I’m thinking only of me.
This statement comes as a great shock, since Heller had given the reader every reason to believe that Yossarian had been thinking only of himself throughout the novel. In fact, if we take seriously what this new Yossarian is saying, then the whole novel is trivialized. Its remorselessly uncompromising picture of the world, written under the aegis of the idea that survival is the overriding value and that all else is pretense, lying, cant, and hypocrisy, now becomes little more than the story of a mismanaged outfit and an attack on the people who (as Yossarian so incongruously puts it with a rhetoric not his own) always cash in “on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.”
Catch-22, then, was not as heroic as it seemed at first sight. On closer examination, it became clear that Heller simply did not have the full courage of his own convictions—a courage that would have enabled him to go all the way with the premise that lay at the basis of his novel. When it came right down to it, he felt a great need to seek conventional moral cover, and could not bring himself to represent World War II itself as a fraud, having nothing whatever to do with ideals or principles.
Yet, for the aesthetic purposes of this novel, it would have been better if he had so represented it. For in shrinking from the ultimate implication of the vision adumbrated by Catch-22—the conviction that nothing on earth is worth dying for, especially not a country—he weakened the impact of his book. And when, suddenly and out of nowhere, he went on to endow Yossarian with a sense of honor in refusing to cooperate to his own advantage with the Cathcarts of this world, Heller also weakened the credibility of his protagonist.
None of this, however, seemed to bother any of Catch-22‘s new crop of admirers, whose numbers swelled as the involvement of the United States in Vietnam escalated. It is easy to see why. Heller’s novel played perfectly into the conviction of the radical movement of the 60’s that this country, and its armed forces above all, were ruled by an “establishment” made up of madmen and criminals. Moreover, in identifying sanity with an unwillingness to serve the purposes of this insane society, Heller was also perfectly in tune with a doctrine that was being preached by most of the major gurus of the era, including writers like Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, and psychiatrists like R.D. Laing. As Heller himself, speaking directly in his own voice, once put it in summarizing what he had been getting at in Catch-22: “Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts—and the question is: what does a sane man do in an insane society?”
But perhaps most important of all, Catch-22 also justified draft evasion and even desertion as morally superior to military service. After all, if the hero of Catch-22, fighting in the best of all possible wars, was right to desert and run off to Sweden (as Yossarian does in the end), how much more justified were his Vietnam-era disciples in following the trail he had so prophetically blazed?
Unlike most of them, James Webb was actually in Vietnam when he read Catch-22 in 1969. “From that lonely place of blood and misery and disease,” he now recalls, “I found a soul mate who helped me face the next day and all the days and months that followed.” Well, as one who served in the army but never saw combat, I have no desire—or any right—to begrudge a war hero like Webb the solace he derived from Heller. I can also imagine why and how, discovering Catch-22 while fighting in so mismanaged a war as Vietnam, Webb could feel that deep was calling unto deep.
Even so, I fear that both this feeling and the solace Catch-22 brought him were based on a sanitized misreading of the book’s “message,” which, as I hope has become obvious by now, has nothing whatsoever to do with the difference between soldiers and “politicians,” or with the “apolitical” nature of battlefields. I also have to say that when a professional military man adopts so worshipful an attitude toward a book that is as nihilistic in its conception of war as Catch-22, a certain lack of self-respect is surely being exposed: should he not be defending his own when it comes under attack?
True, Webb happens to be a published author, with five novels under his belt, so this might be a case of one part of his own trumping the other, with the writer in him, not content with a fair share of respect, hogging the half that should rightly go to the soldier. Anyhow, where the failure of self-respect is concerned, Webb’s encomium to Catch-22 is as nothing compared to what happened at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1986, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
When I first heard back then that the Academy was planning a conference to celebrate this event, I thought it must surely be playing some kind of joke, to get even with Heller’s cruel satire of its own branch of the service. But as it turned out, the only joke the Academy was playing was on itself, and on the profession it presumably exists to serve.
For Catch-22 is perhaps even rougher on the air force (then a part of the army rather than the independent branch it later became) than it is on war. To stress it yet again, the air force as portrayed in this novel is an organization headed by idiots and lunatics like Colonel Cathcart who send countless young boys to their deaths for no reason—none whatsoever—other than the furthering of their own personal ambitions. Even more bizarre (and lest we forget about the evils of American capitalism), Heller gives us Milo Minderbinder, who, from his position as mess officer, runs a huge business in which the enemy has a share; from this enemy, Minderbinder actually accepts a contract to bomb his own outfit. And so it goes, up and down the chain of command.
It was to ponder and applaud the book in which this portrait is painted of their branch of the service that 900 future air-force officers were brought together for an entire weekend in 1986. In the course of that weekend, the cadets were also subjected to learned disquisitions from a troupe of literary scholars who repeatedly assured them—as did Heller himself, making a triumphal appearance, and relying on the prudential retreat he had executed from his true convictions at the end of the novel—that Catch-22 was neither anti-military nor opposed to World War II.
Admittedly, the novel was not totally absolved of fault by the Air Force Academy. One member of its faculty criticized Heller’s attitudes toward women as lacking in proper sympathy and respect.
Asked by a not unreasonably puzzled reporter why the Air Force Academy should have singled out Catch-22, of all books, for such reverential attention, the head of its English department explained that you “don’t want dumb officers out there protecting your country.” A dumb officer, it seems, was one who failed to understand that “the historical distinctions between good guy and bad guy” had been hopelessly blurred, and who had not yet learned that “the enemy is everywhere and nowhere.”
By then I stood in a very different place from the one I had occupied in 1961; and from that place it struck me as an even greater lunacy than any Heller himself attributed to the air corps that a man with a head full of notions like this should have been entrusted with the education of young people who were being trained to lead their fellow good guys into battle against their country’s enemies. But even more absurd and more disheartening were the cheers that greeted Heller’s appearance at the celebration.
If the cadets were cheering him because they were fooled by his disingenuous interpretation of the novel as a “story of military bureaucracy run amok,” then they were showing themselves incapable of recognizing a savage attack on everything they were supposed to stand for, even when it hit them smack in the face. If, on the other hand, the cadets were cheering because they understood what Heller was really saying, then they were endorsing a set of notions that made a mockery of their future profession: that love of country is a naive delusion, that the military is both evil and demented, and that for a soldier to desert is morally superior—more honorable—than to go on serving in the face of mortal danger.
Since 1986, the anti-military ethos of which Catch-22 is the locus classicus for our time has grown weaker and less pervasive, and the original “mindset” about World War II, so sharply criticized by Webb, has returned with great force. Tom Brokaw of NBC has made a small fortune with a book hailing the men who fought that war as “the greatest generation” we have ever produced in this country (the very accolade formerly bestowed on the draft dodgers of the Vietnam era). Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, while stressing (as though in deference to what we might call the Heller version) the gruesomeness of the war, gives equal—well, almost equal—weight to the determination of the soldiers to do their duty and the heroism they sometimes exhibited in the course of it. And out of the Vietnam era itself has come Senator John McCain, whose wonderfully honorable behavior as a prisoner of war has made him a viable challenger to George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination and has attracted the admiration even of people who disagree with many of his policies.
Nevertheless, the influence of the Heller version lingers on in a gutted American military and in a culture that puts the avoidance of casualties above all other considerations. (How often have we been told that the only military engagements the American people will tolerate are those that do not result in the shipping-home of any “body bags”?) Of course, Heller cannot be given all the “credit” for this situation. But there is no denying that through the brilliance of his comic gifts, and the gusto and exuberance with which he deployed them, he made a mighty contribution to it. More specifically, he did as much as anyone to resurrect the pacifist ideas that had become prevalent after World War I and had then been discredited by World War II: that war is simply a means by which cynical people commit legalized murder in pursuit of power and profits; that patriotism is a fraud; and that nothing is worth dying for (this last sentiment, according to Nietzsche, being a mark of the slave).
I do not often agree with the novelist E.L. Doctorow, but I think he was entirely right in his comment upon learning of the death of his friend Joseph Heller:
When Catch-22 came out, people were saying, “Well, World War II wasn’t like this.” But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time. They say fiction can’t change anything, but it can certainly organize a generation’s consciousness.
The success of Catch-22 in accomplishing this feat was undoubtedly a measure of its power as a work of art, about which I have never changed my mind (though not even when I joined in its defense in 1961-2 did I think its “greatness was beyond dispute” or that it “would live forever”). What I have come to question, however, is whether the literary achievement was worth the harm—the moral, spiritual, and intellectual harm—Catch-22 has also undoubtedly managed to do, and to the “consciousness” of, by now, more generations than one.
1 “Writing American Fiction,” COMMENTARY, March 1961.
2 I wrote a long review of Catch-22 soon after it was published, and another, much briefer piece on Heller in 1986. In what follows, I draw in part on both of them.