Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Catch-22 Week: Kill or Be Killed

Anyone who thinks Catch-22 is merely a frivolity, a slapstick indictment, a howl at conformity, a circus of words (all of which it is), need look no further than the equally straight-faced scenes to be reminded of the bitter intent of the novel.  Joseph Heller could be spit-take funny in one paragraph, but chillingly sober in the next.  He had a point to make and he did it not only with jokes and circular repartee, but with convincing arguments for pacifism.  You can see why Catch-22 was especially popular among readers of the Vietnam War era.  It wouldn't be out of the question to find someone burning a draft card in the morning then spray-painting "Yossarian Lives!" on the side of an Army recruiting office that night.

As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark novel, I thought I'd share another of my favorite passages--this time from Chapter 12.  Spray-paint not included.

To improve his reputation, Colonel Cathcart has ordered his squadron to make a crucial, potentially-fatal, bomb run to Bologna. Yossarian sneaks into the operations tent and moves the bomb line on the map in hopes the military planners will scrub the mission.   He's later caught and philosophically tries to argue his way out of his military responsibility to fly the mission.
      "But I'm going to be killed at Bologna," Yossarian pleaded. "We're all going to be killed."
      "Then you'll just have to be killed," replied ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. "Why can't you be a fatalist about it the way I am? If I'm destined to upload these lighters at a profit and pick up some Egyptian cotton cheap from Milo, then that's what I'm going to do. And if you're destined to be killed over Bologna, then you're going to be killed, so you might just as well go out and die like a man. I hate to say this, Yossarian, but you're turning out to be a chronic complainer."
      Clevinger agreed with ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen that it was Yossarian's job to get killed over Bologna and was livid with condemnation when Yossarian confessed that it was he who had moved the bomb line and caused the mission to be canceled.
      "Why the hell not?" Yossarian snarled, arguing all the more vehemently because he suspected he was wrong. "Am I supposed to get my ass shot off because the colonel wants to be a general?"
      "What about the men on the mainland?" Clevinger demanded with just as much emotion. "Are they supposed to get their asses shot off just because you don't want to go? Those men are entitled to air support!"
      "But not necessarily by me. Look, they don't care who knocks out those ammunition dumps. The only reason we're going is because that bastard Cathcart volunteered us."
      "Oh I know all that," Clevinger assured him, his gaunt face pale and his agitated eyes swimming in sincerity. "But the fact remains that those ammunition dumps are still standing. You know very well that I don't approve of Colonel Cathcart any more than you do."  Clevinger paused for emphasis, his mouth quivering, and then beat his fist down softly against his sleeping bag.  "But it's not for us to determine what targets must be destroyed or who's to destroy them or--"
      "Or who gets killed doing it? And why?"
      "Yes, even that. We have no right to question--"
      "You're insane!"
      "--no right to question--"
      "Do you really mean that it's not my business how or why I get killed and that it is Colonel Cathcart's? Do you really mean that?"
      "Yes, I do," Clevinger insisted, seeming unsure. "There are men entrusted with winning the war who are in a much better position than we are to decide what targets have to be bombed."
      "We are talking about two different things," Yossarian answered with exaggerated weariness. "You are talking about the relationship of the Air Corps to the infantry, and I am talking about the relationship of me to Colonel Cathcart. You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive."
      "Exactly," Clevinger snapped smugly. "And which do you think is more important?"
      "To whom?" Yossarian shot back. "Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."
      Clevinger sat for a moment as though he'd been slapped. "Congratulations!" he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk-white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing ring.  "I can't think of another attitude that could be dependent upon to give greater comfort to the enemy."
      "The enemy," resorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live."

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