Monday, December 14, 2009

A plea for human survivaI (1962)

Book Review from the November 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

This is a brilliant, powerful, bitter book.

The military machine is one of capitalism's ugliest children. Ugly not only because it is a killer machine, but also because of the discipline, stupidity and wastefulness which its killer motive compels it to have. Some workers glory in these things. They never forget their days in the Forces; they join ex-servicemen's associations, parade in their campaign medals, perpetuate the slang they learned in the Nissen huts.

Catch-22 looks at all this with the searing eye of remorseless satire. Colonel Cathcart commands a squadron of American bombers based on a small Mediterranean island. He is the sort of man the medal-janglers love; military bearing, tough on the outside, contemptuous of weaklings. Contemptuous, too, of Yossarian. Although the Colonel never actually flies on any of them, he is always ready to volunteer his men for the most dangerous raids on schedule. And he persistently increases the number of missions they must carry out before they are allowed to go home.

Yossarian - the hero (if that is the right word) of the book - is a bombardier who is afraid of being killed or wounded for the simple reason that he enjoys the sensations of living. He knows nothing and does not care about the causes and motives of the war. He only knows that he is scared stiff all the time he is in the air and he is not reluctant to show it. Anybody who wants to fight, he thinks, is crazy. He discovers, in fact, that the Army thinks so as well. But:
"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed. "
In a world gone mad with drums and bugles and medals and guns, Yossarian openly and persistently pleads for human survival, As persistently he is asked, "What if everyone thought like you?" and has his answer ready: "Then I'd be a damn fool to think any other way, wouldn't I?" He has seen through war and through religion and is aghast at the struggle human beings go through to exist. A psychiatrist screams at him:
"You're antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn't surprise me if you're a manic-depressive!"
Let's keep the book in perspective. Joseph Heller is another of the people who, without being Socialists, can compose impressive indictments of capitalism. He is a writer of enormous impact, who constructs and times his sentences to perfection. He can make us laugh and he can grip us horrified with sensitive, compulsive prose. His description of Yossarian brooding through Rome, watching human behaviour decay all around him, will haunt us for a long time. All in all he makes the post-war wave of British novelists, with their startling discovery that a lot of people under capitalism have to work for their living and that in their spare time they sometimes get drunk and have illicit sexual relations, look pretty sick.

Because Heller goes for the lies and hypocrisy which are used in such abundance to sustain capitalism's wars:
"Men went mad and were rewarded with medals, All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb Line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. There was no end in sight."
At the moment, Catch 22 is sweeping the United States, where cars carry window-stickers which say "Better Yossarian Than Rotarian." Nobody need think, because of that, that if capitalism throws up another world war the people who have laughed at, been moved by, and agreed with Heller's book will not turn the required mental somersault and join up with a will. We know now that working class ignorance runs that deep.

For all that, Catch-22 deserves to be read and to find its place among the books which stand out against the lie that war is romantic and glorious and necessary but which say unmistakably that the people have nothing to gain from war and that war is sordid and obscene and futile.