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Joseph Heller's classic remains the most serious, and funniest, indictments of war
Yossarian looked at the patient in the hospital bed next to his. The patient's entire body was swathed in bandages. Tubes containing unidentifiable fluids went into the bandages at one end and tubes containing unidentifiable fluids come out of the other end. Yossarian wondered why the hospital staff didn't just eliminate the middle man - the patient - and link the two sets of tubes.
That's the unforgettable beginning of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which 50 years after it was first published remains a classic of anti-war fiction, ranking with The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Naked and The Dead. But while the other three used stark realism to bring home the senseless horror of warfare, Heller achieved the same objective through the use of black humour and inverted logic.
Set during World War II on a Mediterranean island serving as a US air force base, Catch-22 is one of the most serious - and at the same time certainly by far the funniest - indictments of war ever written, in any language. The murderous absurdity of war is exemplified by the conviction of the main protagonist, Yossarian, an American bombardier, that the purpose of the whole conflict has nothing to do with enemy nations, and armies, and uniforms. The war, Yossarian is convinced, is a conspiracy hatched for the sole purpose of killing him, as a human individual, and other individuals like him. Feigning illness, he gets himself admitted to the air force hospital, where he encounters the bandaged patient. The inmates of the hospital are required to censor the letters of unlisted men. Yossarian cuts out all words except 'a', 'and' and 'the' to create what he claims is "a message far more universal".
In the absurdity of war, words lose meaning and language has to reinvent itself. Indeed, the absurdity of war defeats not just language but logic itself. This is what the military regulation called Catch-22 is all about. According to Catch-22, if you can prove you are crazy you can't be asked to go into combat. However, as fear for one's safety is the product of a rational mind, if you plead craziness to get out of combat duty, it proves that you are sane and therefore you have to go and fight. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
With its crazy sanity, or sane craziness, Catch-22 echoes MAD, the apocalyptic acronym of nuclear theology of Mutual Assured Destruction which in the Cold War years was formulated on the 'logical' formula that, with their capability to destroy the whole world, nuclear weapons ensured global peace. Or to take a Vietnam war example of Catch-22 logic: In order to save the village from the communists, it was necessary to destroy the village.
In a world turned topsy-turvy by the upside-down logic of war - the reciprocal slaughter of human beings in the name of patriotism and peace - the absurd becomes the norm, and the normal becomes absurd. So Catch-22 's cast of characters includes Captain Dunbar who plays tennis because it bores him and makes time seem to pass slowly giving him the feeling that he is living longer. There is a major called Major Major Major Major, the last three 'Majors' being his name given to him by his parents, and Mili Minderbinder, a mess officer and profiteer who has bombs dropped on his own troops as part of a contract with Germany.
More determined than ever to get out of the methodical madness of war, Yossarian takes off all his clothes and walks around naked. By shedding his uniform, his identity as a combatant, he becomes invisible to military eyes and no one seems to notice his nudity until they try to pin a medal on him and discover there's nothing to pin it on except bare skin.
Yossarian is given a choice: he can opt out of the war, if he proclaims the rightness of war and endorses an order that his comrades-in-arms be sent out on more combat missions. Universal pacifist that he is, Yossarian declines the offer which could save his own life only by further endangering the lives of his fellow servicemen. His decision underscores Heller's message: Pacifism, the active avoidance of warfare, is based not on an instinct of selfish self-preservation but on a moral sense of solidarity with all of humanity, whose humaneness itself is the first victim of war.
The ultimate anti-war warrior, Yossarian takes the corkscrew logic of Catch-22 and turns it back on itself: "What could you do with a man who looked you squarely in the eye and said he would rather die than be killed in combat?" That, Heller seems to suggest, might be the Catch-23 which is humankind's only hope of trumping Catch-22.
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