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Happy Birthday, ‘Catch-22’: Reading the Novel in a Time of War

I initially read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 while squirreled away in a Toronto hotel room during the 1997 Modern Language Association (MLA) convention. It was December, and I had just finished my first semester teaching English at West Point. Heller’s novel was a revelation—an outrageous fiction opening a window onto the various paradoxes and pathologies that characterize institutional cultures everywhere. More important, it helped me to make sense of my recent introduction to military culture. Heller’s glorious caricatures—ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, the clerk to whom even generals defer; Major Major, the squadron commander who is never in his office except when he’s out; Colonel Cathcart, the group commander at once “dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined … complacent and insecure”—became bywords for their real-life avatars.

Catch-22 was the extreme case—a system gone wild—that illuminated the quotidian and thus made suddenly intelligible to me a new world’s unfamiliar vocabularies, rituals, preoccupations, and assumptions. It showed me what was different about this culture from those that had shaped me. How, for example, authority operates in an institution in which the participants actually wear their status on their shoulders: “That was clever,” exclaims a naked general on being informed that his uniform has been thrown out a hotel-room window by Yossarian, Heller’s stubborn protagonist, and his pals. “We’ll never be able to convince anyone we’re superior without our uniforms. … That was a splendid tactic.”

Alone in my hotel room, grinning like Orr, the pilot whose “deranged and galvanic giggle” infuriates Yossarian, I thought Catch-22 was just about the funniest, most outrageous thing I’d ever read. But until last week I had never been able to bring myself to read it again. Over the years, I returned to favorite passages and continued to refer to people who were never in their offices when I went looking for them as “Major Major,” but whenever I tried to read the novel through to the end, I was stopped short by Snowden, the gunner who dies in Yossarian’s arms from a shrapnel wound. The story of Snowden’s death recurs throughout the novel; each iteration reveals a bit more until in the book’s penultimate chapter we are confronted by the entire violent, abject mess of it. 

Snowden’s death is arguably the one wholly non-parodic episode in the book, and it was the element to which I had paid the least attention the first time through. Somehow, in the intervening years, it had become the insistent core of the book, and that recognition confused my relationship with the rest of the novel. Perhaps I was too slow to realize the degree to which internal and external events had combined to remake me as a reader: I was no longer a stranger to the culture the book satirized and no longer a peacetime but a wartime consumer of the “hilarity and horror” that one early reviewer praised. And so, I put the book away until, after a decade of war and the deaths of several “Snowdens” of my own, I decided on this the fiftieth anniversary of its publication to try again.

Catch-22 is a great favorite of my friend Nick, a helicopter pilot who has served a combat tour in Iraq, and I thought he might be able to help me make a new kind of sense of Heller’s novel, especially of those elements that no longer seemed so outlandish. Take, for instance, Yossarian’s incessant complaint: “They’re trying to kill me,” introduced at the same moment we learn of Snowden’s death. “That’s what you come to understand,” Nick explained, “they are trying to kill you, and not haphazardly or sporadically. There are people who are devoted every day to the business of killing you, and they’re good at it. You can do absolutely everything right, and they can still kill you.”

There were other things that didn’t seem quite so fantastic anymore: the mess officer Milo Minderbinder’s plan to contract war out to “private industry”; the civilian discomfort with the “obligation of continuous sympathy” for the bereaved; or that warped brand of patriotism that reads anything less than total agreement as disloyalty and that rationalizes almost any action on the grounds that it is “for the good of the country.” “Morale was deteriorating,” Heller writes, “and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” That’s Nick’s favorite passage in the book, which he read before deploying: “I think,” he told me, “more than anything else I’d read at the time, the novel prompted me to ask about a particular assignment or mission: Why are we doing this? It’s not really a question anyone prepares you to reckon with, but it is one that is critical for commanders to ask.…. Soldiers know when a leader knows why he or she is doing something as opposed to just relaying a command.”

When I closed the book—this time on the final page—what stayed with me above all else was the impotence of Yossarian in the face of the “grim secret” the dying Snowden discloses: “It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter.” 

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

Snowden dies, and there’s nothing Yossarian can do about it. That is the source of the outrage, the extremity, the thing against which the spectator is powerless—against which I’m powerless. That—not the naked generals, crazed colonels, and invisible majors—is the wartime heart of Heller’s book. And that’s what I didn’t understand the first time around.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.