If it hasn’t occurred to you that “Catch-22" was the first great American novel on the Vietnam War before we knew what was happening there, consider this berserk little scene that I witnessed one day at an Army base far from Saigon. A young Army psychiatrist, clearly a forlorn draftee like so many others, was having brief sessions with enlisted men who felt they were losing their wits and needed to talk. It was an exercise in futility.
I was allowed to sit in the little room if I remained silent. A squad leader in from the field--dirty, agitated, suspicious--tried to explain in the fewest words possible that he had almost blacked out when his squad was in a firefight.
“Have you tried breathing in a paper bag?” the psychiatrist asked. “You might be hyperventilating.” The idea of panting in a paper bag while under AK-47 fire had a malevolent charm. The soldier, speechless at first, made a final desperate attempt.
“Doc, we were taking fire.”
“Why don’t you try?” the psychiatrist asked.
The military command in Vietnam hoped that little chats with a psychiatrist might reduce the numbers of mutinous GIs who disobeyed their officers, tried to kill them, wrote “F--- the Army” anyplace they could and wore peace symbols, love beads and homemade Black Power bracelets and necklaces. On that day, and so many others to come, I thought of dear Yossarian, the lead bombardier in “Catch-22,” a sane and kind 28-year-old man who thought everybody was trying to get him killed, which was almost true. Yossarian didn’t care whether his bombs hit their targets; his concern was to avoid enemy anti-aircraft fire and not to be too close to exploding German planes. His nerve was gone; it had rotted away.
Yossarian felt persecuted, with reason, by the odious Colonel Cathcart, who kept raising the number of missions Yossarian’s squadron had to fly. Forcing the men into combat was his only tangible achievement. (In Vietnam, the troops knew what it meant to carry a grudge against an officer who kept them in the field too long.) Yossarian decides to go crazy so he will be grounded, but he doesn’t anticipate the result. Anyone who tries to get out of combat is not crazy, therefore he must keep going into combat. There was no end in sight.
Conversations were a mockery; language was never useful. In Vietnam, correspondents were issued accreditation cards saying in case of capture they were entitled to the rank of major. The benefit of this was unclear to all.
“I don’t want to be a major,” I complained. “I’m a civilian. Being a major will only make it worse.”
“There is no choice,” said the soldier in the press office. Right away you knew there was a seed of Colonel Cathcart in this fellow, and it was only a question of time before it began to bloom.
Colonel Cathcart, who wrote a directive ordering the men to wear neckties on combat missions, did not annul the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade dreamed up by a conniving captain. “All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tents, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks,” Heller wrote.
But it was a minor character in “Catch-22,” Colonel Korn, who speaks the words imprinted in the brains of so many officers in the wars to come. The occasion was deciding what to do about Yossarian after it took him two sorties to destroy a bridge. Colonel Cathcart was fussing over how to cover this up in his report. Clever Yossarian suggests he be given a medal for finally hitting the target. This is agreed on. Yossarian is also promoted to captain. “You know, that might be the answer--to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail,” Colonel Korn said.
How Colonel Korn would have appreciated and enjoyed the daily five o’clock briefing in Saigon for the large press corps, who christened it the Five O’Clock Follies and often made a ruckus as the war went on.
Yossarian tried to warn the other men about the perils surrounding them from their own officers and the punishment that might come whether they were guilty or not. When young Clevinger was called before an Action Board for some trumped-up transgressions, it was very strange to him. " . . . but the strangest of all, to Clevinger, was the hatred, the brutal, uncloaked, inexorable hatred of the members of the Action Board, glazing their unforgiving expressions with a hard, vindictive surface. Clevinger was stunned to discover it. They would have lynched him if they could. They were three grown men and he was a boy, and they hated him and wished him dead. . . .”
“Catch 22" is not just a wildly funny novel but an immensely tragic and disturbing book weighted with black sorrow. Yossarian tries to run from the sorrow, but he is always caught and not let go. No World War II novel has a more harrowing scene than the description of the radio-gunner, Snowden, badly wounded and whimpering that he was cold. Snowden lay on the floor of the plane in a yellow splash of sunlight near the still younger new tail-gunner. “There, there,” Yossarian kept saying, “There, there.”
And then there is the scene at the beach when Kid Sampson, playing on a raft, is sliced in half by the propeller of a plane flown by the pilot McWatt, who loved flying so much but was flying too low. “Everyone at the beach was screaming and running and the men sounded like women,” Heller wrote, describing how bits and pieces of Kid Sampson’s body rained all over. Yossarian ran after McWatt’s plane, waving his arms and shouting up at him to come down. But McWatt knew best and flew into a mountain. “Colonel Cathcart was so upset by the deaths of Kid Sampson and McWatt that he raised the missions to sixty-five,” Heller wrote.
It is all made bearable because of the riotous antics of other characters like Major Major Major, the commander of the squadron, who hides from all people and wears a disguise, and Milo Minderbinder, a pilot who builds a vast worldwide trading syndicate. He even barters with the Germans who have signed up with his M & M Enterprises, Fine Fruits and Produce. He lands a contract with the Germans to bomb his own outfit, which is done most efficiently by Milo’s men.
It was strangely comforting during the war in Vietnam to remember “Catch-22" as if Heller himself was giving me strength for the unimaginable things that kept coming at me. There was the outfit that wouldn’t let any American near them if the American had eaten the apricots in the C-rations because that meant all of them would die. There was the pale boy who had lost the top of his index finger in a farm accident but was drafted anyway and expected to use a rifle. He was swept in-country by Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000, which sucked in kids who wouldn’t have passed the regular Army tests: It was better to have the docile boy with the mutilated finger than a troublemaker from Harvard who might sabotage the choppers.
Heller must have known there were quite a few of us who felt a fierce attachment to Yossarian and rejoiced in his final escape from the war by rowing to Sweden alone. But in a preface written in 1994 for a recent paperback edition Heller wrote: “Sooner or later, I must concede, Yossarian, now seventy, will have to pass away too. But it won’t be by my hand.”