War Writing


This post is a tribute to one of the great books of the last century and for me the greatest book about war, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  Published in 1961 it became an instant bestseller. 

Two weeks ago I highlighted another bestseller and first novel from the same period, Mrs. Bridge by Evans Connell, which was published in 1959.  It’s hard to imagine two novels that are more strikingly different.  Mrs. Bridge is a radically understated account of the interior life of a remarkably ordinary middle-class woman going through a pedestrian existence as wife, mother, and socialite in prewar Kansas City.  Catch-22 is a completely over-the-top surrealist account of the insanity of the Second World war as experienced by an American bombardier named Yossarian and his squadron on a small island in Italy.

Here’s a taste of Yossarian’s worldview:

It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it – lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them. To die or not to die, that was the question, and Clevinger grew limp trying to answer it. History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.

Yossarian’s job, however, was to go on bombing missions were everyone was trying to shoot him out of the sky.  He dealt with it by focusing on survival over hitting his target.

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

The men had loved flying behind Yossarian, who used to come barreling in over the target from all directions and every height, climbing and diving and twisting and turning so steeply and sharply that it was all the pilots of the other five planes could do to stay in formation with him, leveling out only for the two or three seconds it took for the bombs to drop and then zooming off again with an aching howl of engines, and wrenching his flight through the air so violently as he wove his way through the filthy barrages of flak that the six planes were soon flung out all over the sky like prayers, each one a pushover for the German fighters, which was just fine with Yossarian, for there were no German fighters any more and he did not want any exploding planes near his when they exploded.

‘Yossarian, did the bombs hit the target?’ ‘What bombs?’ answered Yossarian, whose only concern had been the flak. ‘Oh, well,’ McWatt would sing, ‘what the hell.’


Desperate to escape from the war and get sent home, Yossarian had to confront Catch-22.  If you’re crazy, you can be sent home.  But if you ask to be certified as crazy in order to get out of the war, you are obviously same.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. 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.

‘Let somebody else get killed.’ ‘But suppose everybody on our side felt that way.’ ‘Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?’

His friend Doc Daneeka cited Catch-22 when repeatedly refusing Yossarian’s pleas to certify him — explaining that he too was making a terrible sacrifice, since he had been forced to abandon a lucrative practice back home.

Doc Daneeka was Yossarian’s friend and would do just about nothing in his power to help him.

Heller surrounds Yossarian with a vividly depicted cast of characters.  One unforgettable minor figure is Colonel Cargill.

Colonel Cargill, General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was a forceful, ruddy man. Before the war he had been an alert, hardhitting, aggressive marketing executive. He was a very bad marketing executive. Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilized world, from Battery Park to Fulton Street, he was known as a dependable man for a fast tax write-off. His prices were high, for failure often did not come easily. He had to start at the top and work his way down, and with sympathetic friends in Washington, losing money was no simple matter. It took months of hard work and careful mis-planning. A person misplaced, disorganized, miscalculated, overlooked everything and opened every loophole, and just when he thought he had it made, the government gave him a lake or a forest or an oilfield and spoiled everything. Even with such handicaps, Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.

Another character is Major Major, whom Heller captures succinctly in one brief paragraph.

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

One non-speaking character is the soldier in white, whom Yossarian encountered in the hospital.  Completely encased in a white cast from head to foot, he had an opening in the mouth and tubes coming out of his arm and his groin connect to jars.

Changing the jars for the soldier in white was no trouble at all, since the same clear fluid was dripped back inside him over and over again with no apparent loss. When the jar feeding the inside of his elbow was just about empty, the jar on the floor was just about full, and the two were simply uncoupled from their respective hoses and reversed quickly so that the liquid could be dripped right back into him. Changing the jars was no trouble to anyone but the men who watched them changed every hour or so and were baffled by the procedure.

Another member of the dramatis personae is General Peckham, whose primary mission was writing memos.  Heller is masterful at capturing his style.

General Peckem laid great, fastidious stress on small matters of taste and style. He was always *augmenting* things. Approaching events were never *coming*, but always *upcoming*. It was not true that he wrote *memorandums* praising himself and recommending that his authority be *enhanced* to include all combat operations; he wrote *memoranda*. And the prose in the *memoranda* of other officers was always *turgid, stilted*, or *ambiguous*. The errors of others were inevitably *deplorable*. Regulations were *stringent*, and his data never *was* obtained from a reliable source, but always *were* obtained. General Peckem was frequently *constrained*. Things were often *incumbent* upon him, and he frequently acted with *greatest reluctance*. It never escaped his memory that neither black nor white was a color, and he never used *verbal* when he meant *oral*. He could quote glibly from Plato, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Theodore Roosevelt, the Marquis de Sade and Warren G. Harding.

Fortunately, most of Peckham’s memos never got delivered because they were intercepted by the head of the mail room, ex-PFC Wintergreen.  (He was once promoted to ex-Sergeant, but then got busted back to ex-PFC again.)  He considered Peckham’s prose too “prolix.”

Colonel Korn makes a few appearances. especially this one after which he came to spread the word about a fearful new weapon, which he heard about from Yossarian.

Yossarian sidled up drunkenly to Colonel Korn at the officers’ club one night to kid with him about the new Lepage gun that the Germans had moved in. ‘What Lepage gun?’ Colonel Korn inquired with curiosity. ‘The new three-millimeter Lepage glue gun,’ Yossarian answered. ‘It glues a whole formation of planes together in mid-air.’

And then there’s the dead man in Yossarian’s tent.

His name was Mudd. To Sergeant Towser, who deplored violence and waste with equal aversion, it seemed like such an abhorrent extravagance to fly Mudd all the way across the ocean just to have him blown into bits over Orvieto less than two hours after he arrived. No one could recall who he was or what he had looked like, least of all Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, who remembered only that a new officer had shown up at the operations tent just in time to be killed and who colored uneasily every time the matter of the dead man in Yossarian’s tent was mentioned. The only one who might have seen Mudd, the men in the same plane, had all been blown to bits with him. Yossarian, on the other hand, knew exactly who Mudd was. Mudd was the unknown soldier who had never had a chance, for that was the only thing anyone ever did know about all the unknown soldiers — they never had a chance.

The book opens with Yossarian in his favorite retreat from the war, the hospital.  He kept complaining about liver pains, which no one could ever find.  He got the idea from a helpful doctor, when he tried to use his appendix as his ailment.

‘I think it’s my appendix that’s bothering me,’ Yossarian told him. ‘Your appendix is no good,’ the Englishman declared with jaunty authority. ‘If your appendix goes wrong, we can take it out and have you back on active duty in almost no time at all. But come to us with a liver complaint and you can fool us for weeks. The liver, you see, is a large, ugly mystery to us. If you’ve ever eaten liver you know what I mean. We’re pretty sure today that the liver exists and we have a fairly good idea of what it does whenever it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Beyond that, we’re really in the dark. After all, what is a liver? My father, for example, died of cancer of the liver and was never sick a day of his life right up till the moment it killed him.

He found the hospital to be a relative oasis of sanity.

There were usually not nearly as many sick people inside the hospital as Yossarian saw outside the hospital, and there were generally fewer people inside the hospital who were seriously sick. There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily. People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn’t dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane. ‘I’m cold,’ Snowden had whimpered. ‘I’m cold.’

Yossarian knew who the real enemies were in this war, and one was the squandron commander, Colonel Cathcart.

‘The enemy,’ retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, ‘is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter *which* side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.’

Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available. No target was too dangerous for his group to attack.

One device that Heller uses to great effect is foreshadowing.  For example, he repeatedly refers to the dead man in Yossarian’s tent before finally explaining how he got there.  And he casually mention that the trenches were built “the day Milo Minderbinder bombed his own squadron.”  Gradually we come to find that Milo is the quartermaster for the squadron who branches out into providing full-service military services to both sides in the war, all in the service of making a profit.  Whenever anyone questioned him about this, he calmly pointed out that “Everyone has a share.  To prove his point, he was glad to write “a share” on the piece of paper and hand it to you.

The most frequent and chilling refrain throughout the entire book is a snippet of a scene in the plane over Avignon when he hears Snowden’s voice on the intercom enigmatically repeating, “I’m cold.  I’m cold.”  Over the course of the book, he comes to refer to how Snowden “spilled his secret” on that flight.  Then the spilling gets more graphic.

That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon – they were out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back of the plane.

Only at the end do we get the full horrific story, which has been haunting Yossarian all along.

Yossarian couldn’t stop thinking of 

pitiful, whimpering Snowden freezing to death in the rear section of the plane, holding his eternal, immutable secret concealed inside his quilted, armor-plate flak suit until Yossarian had finished sterilizing and bandaging the wrong wound on his leg, and then spilling it out suddenly all over the floor.

The plane was hit by flak over Avignon when Snowden’s voice came over the intercom.  Yossarian crawled back to him and saw that the flak had wounded his thigh.  So he opened the first aid kit, found that Milo had removed the morphine in order to sell it on the market, replacing it with aspirin.  He gave Snowden the aspirin and carefully dressed his wound.  But Snowden continued saying “I’m cold.”

‘I’m cold,’ Snowden whimpered. ‘I’m cold.’ ‘There, there,’ Yossarian said. ‘There, there.’ ‘I’m cold. I’m cold.’ ‘There, there. There, there.’

Then Yossarian spotted a hole in Snowden’s flak suit, and when he managed to get it open, Snowden’s secret finally spilled out.

He felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.

The only thing Yossarian could do was to keep repeating, “There, there.  There, there.”

It’s one of the most compelling scenes in literature, which comes at the climax of this savagely comic novel.  A remarkable achievement.  Read it again.

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