Catch-22: The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 2 2011 12:57 PM

Seeing Catch-22 Twice

The awful truth people miss about Heller's great novel.

(Continued from Page 1)

There's a brief passage in Chris Buckley's introduction to the new edition in which he quotes from a letter written to Heller by Stephen Ambrose the historian: "For sixteen years," Ambrose wrote, I have been waiting for the great anti-war book which I knew WWII must produce. I rather doubted, however, that it would come out of America; I would have guessed Germany. I am happy to have been wrong. Thank you."

This is a bit puzzling: Wasn't World War II supposed to have been "the good war," one of the few in history in which there was relative moral clarity? And didn't Ambrose write Band of Brothers for Spielberg, a script that was realistic about war but not anti-war. We were seeking to defeat Adolf Hitler after all.

This was the point that Podhoretz was making in his attack on the novel:

In due course even World War II fell victim to the onslaught of the antiheroic ethos that was resurrected in the Sixties and given even greater currency by Vietnam. Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 is the key document here. Though published in the early days of American involvement in Vietnam, Catch-22 was a product of the new climate, and so powerful was this climate already becoming that Heller not only got away with but was even applauded for what a few years earlier would have been thought virtually blasphemous—showing up World War II as in effect no different from or better than World War I. As Heller portrayed it, there were no heroes in that war; there were only victims of a racket run by idiots, hustlers and thieves.

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I think I can speak for my father in saying that Podhoretz, who has written repeated attacks on the book, has missed the point, or lets a lack of a sense of humor obscure it. But sometimes an attack can have a clarifying effect on why one really values a book and this was the case here. I remember being indignant when I when I first read it. For Podhoretz, Yossarian was not the lovable, shambolic, subversive anti-war anti-hero I (and almost everyone else, particularly of the Vietnam generation) thought him to be. He was a shameless, shameful shirker.

In refusing to go on bombing missions after the requisite number kept being raised by self-serving commanders every time Yossarian came near fulfilling the quota, and by causing the scrubbing of planned missions, Yossarian was either condemning others to die or risk death in his place. He was undermining, Podhoretz argues, in an immoral, cowardly way, what was generally agreed to be a virtuous cause, however bungled its execution.

The people who defended Heller, Yossarian, and Catch-22 from critiques like Podhoretz's tended to say, Well, the war was just about all over! Already won! The missions were hardly even necessary; the commanders were foolishly and unnecessarily condemning the fliers to death by ordering extra missions.

I was satisfied with that for a while, and I kept on rereading Catch-22 with even more defiant pleasure. But after a while, probably after the time I spent writing Explaining Hitler, I began to rethink that defense, and to find it deficient. And re-examining the book opened the door to a new way of looking at Catch-22, one that saw it as even more profound.

First the factual background: If you examine the state of the war at the time when the novel is set more closely, you have to concede the war wasn't "over," in the sense of having been definitively won. (I've just done a new introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which sensitized me to the chronology of the war.) There is no mention of Normandy in the novel, the Herman Goering Division is still a force to be reckoned with, even the Italian campaign was not a done deal. Mussolini is still in power in the novel, so its time frame must be 1943. Which means there was a lot of significant, potentially disastrous fighting yet to be done and that those bombing runs that Yossarian is shirking—even if they were ordered by preening idiots with no concern for the air crews or the war beyond the opportunity for self-promotion—had significance.

Which means that on strictly moral grounds, Podhoretz may have had a point. If you want to admire Catch-22 as an anti-war novel, you can only reasonably do so from a strictly pacifist position. What if everyone acted like Yossarian? Well, maybe he'd be a fool not to have done so, but Hitler might well have remained in control of Europe.

So where does that leave us? It left me thinking that to regard Catch-22 merely as an anti-war novel is a mistake. Even to regard it, as many critics do, as about "mortality" diminishes its scope. After all, Yossarian's much ballyhooed "discovery" of mortality at the end of the novel is not much of a discovery, however "hands on" it may be. (Spoiler alert: His fellow crewman Snowden suffers a horrendous flak wound and literally spills his guts into Yossarian's hands; the incident, recounted at the end of the book, takes place early on in the chronology and may well be what triggered the overt symptoms of rebellion we see in Yossarian throughout.) Even so, there's no shortage of novels that dwell on the tragedy of mortality.

I think Heller's argument was not with war or with death but with God. That the novel is less about the death of Snowden than "the death of God," as that theological tendency was known back then. That what the novel is really about is theodicy. Theodicy being of course the subcategory of theology which attempts (and studies the attempts) to reconcile human suffering, cruelty, and evil with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God. Heller doesn't think it can be done.

He makes this extremely daring, radically blasphemous argument—essentially that God is, if not evil, then hopelessly incompetent—most explicitly in the chapter about the soldier who "sees everything twice."

It's in Chapter 18. (Purely coincidence I'm sure, but by now everyone knows the story of how Heller had originally titled his novel Catch-18 but—because he learned at the last minute that popular novelist Leon Uris was coming out with a book entitled Mila 18—he and his editor and publisher decided to change the title to Catch-22. There has been much speculation about why they chose 22, as opposed to another number, and I have a theory I shall relate in a moment.)

But to set the stage: Chapter 18 takes place in the airbase hospital to which Yossarian has once again repaired, hoping to convince the doctors he's sick enough to avoid flying any more missions even though he's perfectly healthy.

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