War never changes, an often-quoted fact that’s outstandingly proved by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I’m going to start this bluntly by saying if you’ve never sat down and read this book as a servicemember, you’re wrong. This book is the Office Space for uniformed service members; while there are plenty of books that capture the bravery, strategy, and drama of war, there is only one book that fully captures the absurdity of it. Aside from the fact that it’s a genuinely entertaining and funny book, there’s plenty of reasons that West Point recommended Catch-22 along with Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Like every great war movie or book, Catch-22 captures the emotions that persist behind the scenes in armed conflict. In this case, the story revolves around a fictional regulation called Catch-22. It supposes that a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly doomed-to-fail combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from the missions, he must still be considered sane and must continue to fly. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation that anyone who’s been on the bottom of the Food-Chain of Command can relate to.
In the best situations, this strict military hierarchy can put forward the best of everyone in the chain. Everyone trusts their leaders and their subordinates, and its what leads to the valor that the U.S. Military is associated with. But anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in the military has also felt the pitfalls of a rigid structure; the feeling of being trapped by poor decisions and an impossible situation. The villain in Catch-22 isn’t the war: it’s an ineffective chain of command that can’t and won’t address the problems of its soldiers and airmen. Take for example this passage describing the character MAJ Major:
“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.”
These are truths that the book’s author Joseph Heller knew well. Heller was in the Army Air Corps during World War II and wound up flying 60 combat missions in a B-25. It’s not hard to imagine that many of the thoughts that come up in the book are thoughts that Heller had himself during his time in the war. His biography is filled with stories of flying out under increasingly hostile assaults of anti-aircraft barrages, specifically one in where indecision between a pilot and co-pilot nearly downed the craft he was operating on.
Reading Catch-22 is understanding quickly the absurd can creep into an armed conflict and what happens when someone starts questioning the purpose of the mission. The book’s protagonist Yossarian isn’t supposed to be emulated. Instead, he’s an outlet for soldiers’ frustrations; someone that you can point to and say, “See! Someone else gets it!” while you crawl into your position on the bomber that you know will be within the range of enemy flak in the next hour.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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