Monday, November 7, 2011

Catch-22 Week: My First Catch

By the time our plane reached cruising altitude, Yossarian was already naked.  In his memorable act of civil disobedience, the bombardier shed his uniform and climbed a tree to watch Snowden's burial service.  Snowden had been killed in the mission over Avignon and bled all over Yossarian and so now he swore he'd never wear another uniform again so long as he lived.

Japanese movie poster for Catch-22

I looked around the plane as we flew the 7,000 miles from Georgia to Iraq in the Continental Airlines 777 chartered by the 3rd Infantry Division.  Like me, my fellow passengers were all wearing desert-camouflage uniforms.  I prayed to God none of them ever took the notion to disrobe and walk around camp naked.  By the looks of it, however, there were no Yossarians among us.  This was a deadly serious bunch of soldiers, fueled by George W. Bush's rhetoric and, for many of them, the memory of their first time through Iraq two years earlier.  It was Mission Yet to be Accomplished, but by God they were determined to "git 'er done."  These were all go-with-the-grain troops.

I alone seemed to be the dissident on the plane.  I was heading into combat for the first time and, to get myself in the right mindset, I was also reading Catch-22 for the first time.  I had planned it like this: go to war, read the book which mocked war, survive the war through satire.  In truth, Joseph Heller doesn't so much poke a satiric finger at war as much as he does the men who make war.  It's the war machine which comes under such side-splitting scrutiny in these pages.  The tangles of red tape, the complicated cogs of bureaucracy, the nonsensical rules carried out by battalions of buffoons.  You know, the catch, the policy that kept raising the number of missions each time anyone got close enough to qualify to go home.
      There was, of course, a catch.
      "Catch-22?" inquired Yossarian.
      "Of course," Colonel Korn answered pleasantly...His rimless square eyeglasses glinted with sly amusement as he gazed at Yossarian. "After all, we can't simply send you home for refusing to fly more missions and keep the rest of the men here, can we? That would hardly be fair to them....You know, you really have been making things terribly difficult for Colonel Cathcart. The men are unhappy and morale is beginning to deteriorate. And it's all your fault."
      "It's your fault," Yossarian argued, "for raising the number of missions."
      "No, it's your fault for refusing to fly them," Colonel Korn retorted. "The men were perfectly content to fly as many missions as we asked as long as they thought they had no alternative, Now you've given them hope, and they're unhappy. So the blame is all yours."
Did I want to get out combat duty?  I'd be lying if I said "No."  Was I about to take off my clothes or wear a dress like M*A*S*H's Corporal Klinger?  No, of course not.  I had a wife and three kids back home to think about.  I would play the part of an obedient warrior--albeit an anxious one heading into the unknown--and follow orders.

But at the same time, I could be subversive in my own small way.  I would read Catch-22 and I would not try to hide the cover.  I lifted the paperback closer to my face, the blue cover with the dangling red soldier-puppet plain for all to see.

No one seemed to care.  The other soldiers on the plane had retreated into the earphones connected to their iPods, their eyes closed to catch the forty winks they'd have a hard time catching once in Baghdad.  Or they sipped their watery Cokes and watched the in-flight movie (Meet the Fockers).  Or they stared ahead at the head-rest in front of them with glassy, distant eyes.

The inside of the plane had been festooned with red, white and blue balloons, crepe paper and drawings from elementary students wishing us the best of luck and to “come home soon after you kill the Iraqis.”

It was January 2, 2005 and if any of us had made a resolution beyond "I will come back with all four limbs attached," we were keeping it to ourselves.  The plane was quiet as a funeral until the assistant division commander for maneuver, shedding all military decorum, walked up and down the aisles wearing a cardboard party hat and blowing a noisemaker.   "Hap-peee New Year!" he cried.   Bits of parti-colored confetti flew through the air, settling on our shaved scalps.  A few of us grinned out of awkward courtesy, then went back to staring at the inscrutable pattern on the head-rest.

I continued reading Catch-22:
It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it—lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them. To die or not to die, that was the question….That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.
Was it?  Was that the war I was flying toward?  Months from now, would I be cradling a Snowden in my arms while he bled all over my uniform?

No.  As it turned out, mine was not a vile and muddy war.  Unlike most of the others on that chartered jet, I would spend 99.9% of my tour of duty safely ensconced in division headquarters writing press releases which described the blood-soaked death-drenched days of those fighting the vile, muddy war in the city outside the concertina wire.  Mine was a war fought in cubicles, cooled by air-conditioners, and leavened with enough downtime when I could read books like Catch-22.

At the time, sitting on the plane, I had no way of knowing I faced a somewhat cushy future with "three hots and a cot."  To me, war was still the great unknown, the ultimate Fear Factor.  Joseph Heller was painting a picture for me of a life filled with equal parts terror and absurdity.  Oh boy.  I could hardly wait.

I didn't finish Catch-22 during that plane ride.  My mind was too knotted with fear and lack of sleep.  And there was Meet the Fockers, after all.  I got as far as The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice and decided to give it a rest, gently dog-earing the page.

I would come back to Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, Snowden, Colonel Cathcart and Major Major Major Major many more times in the coming month as I waited in limbo at the division's way-station in Kuwait.  Later, I would read another of the books I'd packed in my duffel bag for the deployment--Don Quixote--and I would have jumbled dreams in which Yossarian attacked windmills with a ten-foot lance.

Throughout my time in Baghdad, there were continual reminders I was living in a Heller of a war.  Going back through my journal now, I find these entries:  "U.S. soldiers responded to an explosion in central Baghdad and discovered that two Iraqis had blown themselves up while constructing a car bomb. I banged out a quick, almost giddy press release with the headline 'Two terrorists vie for Darwin Award.'  Col. Kent later said that was inappropriate and we changed it."  On another day, I received a casualty report for a soldier who was hit with a roadside bomb while riding in a Humvee.  The illiterate report-writer claimed the soldier suffered "a loss of conscience."  And I'm not even going to mention the long email chains in which generals and colonels issued guidance on which words we could and couldn't use to describe those we fought against.  An entire week was consumed with the debate over "terrorists" versus "insurgents."

By the end of my year in Iraq, I was convinced Catch-22 should be mandatory reading for soldiers heading into combat.  We need more Yossarians sitting in a tree, naked and cat-calling the bloated and pompous decision-makers.  Catch-22 is an owner's manual for How to Survive a War with all your senses intact.  Particularly your sense of humor.

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