Just finished reading Heller’s classic anti-war novel last night, Catch-22. I understand that the writers of the M*A*S*H TV series drew a lot of their “feel” from Heller’s novel — the idea that war is just nuts. Insane. Absurd. And most veterans say few books or movies even come close to the real horrors of the insanity.
I teach a war lit unit to my oldest students every couple of years. It’s one of my favorite units, not because the literature is fun or easy, but because it means so much to my students as they work through it. I think war is the ultimate illustration of sin, its destructiveness, and the cost of redemption (victory of good over evil). But I digress….
If you decide to read Catch-22, prepare yourself for a barrage of idiocy. Everyone at first seems to make no sense. Sorting the sane from the insane seems futile. I nearly quit. (This is my second attempt to read the book.) The story focuses on American bomber pilots stationed in Italy during 1943. I took time to soak up some of Coart’s WWII knowledge before I plunged in, and I highly recommend you do a little background reading on the Italian campaign before you start. You need to understand how futile things appeared to be in that part of the war to get Heller’s point.
I’m glad I stuck with it. About halfway through, Heller begins to weave powerful ‘story-truth’ into his novel (as Tim O’Brien says). The absurd ironies remain, but a deeper message arises — one that mourns the loss of life and common sense during times of war. Heller’s prose turns thick and beautiful at the most horrific points — when the young man is accidentally sliced in half by a low-flying plane; when plane after plane is shot out of the sky on seemingly useless bombing runs ordered by a commanding officer who merely wants his unit to look good by flying all the most dangerous missions; when Snowden spills his horrible secret in the back of an icy bomber.
While I think O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a far more literary exploration of the human cost of war, I have a new respect for Heller’s attempt to catch us all with his Catch-22: Only an insane man would voluntarily put himself into the horrible dangers of being a bomber… but asking to be removed from flight duty merely proves you are indeed sane, and thus fit to fly.