Catch-22 amid wars and pandemic

Catch-22 amid wars and pandemic

When Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was published in November 1961, it struck a chord with readers across the world who were against wars. The second world war had wreaked unimaginable havoc and enough was enough.

The satirical, anti-war novel with its absurd logic received wide acclaim and was made into a film in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. The popularity of the book created a cult following and sold over 10 million copies, making Heller a millionaire.

Sixty years on and in today’s age of anxiety, Catch-22 is a stark reminder of the madness of war and its deadly aftermath. It tells of the absurdities that take place in wartime politics and how it all results in terrible human suffering and loss. In the time of today’s “war” against Covid-19, the book’s message seems, in a strange way, relevant.

Set largely on a US Air Force base in the Mediterranean during World War II, the story revolves around the protagonist, John Yossarian, a captain in the squadron serving as a B-25 bombardier. He fears being killed by unknown enemies but his real fear is not the enemy but his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service.

Yet if Yossarian attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions he’s assigned, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule that decrees a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. 

The book has many interesting side plots and just like Yossarian, we see how each individual in the unit fights their own personal battle to preserve their sanity in this hopeless situation.

While Yossarian’s story forms the core of the novel, one is struck by the brilliant dialogues and some of the broad themes that come through — the absolute power of bureaucracy, the loss of religious faith, the inefficacy of language, human frailty and the inevitability of death and indeed the Catch-22’s in life itself.

Heller perfectly portrays ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances and readers will remember the many interesting characters that add to the story’s appeal.   

On its 60th birthday, I am sure the book will resonate with military servicemen sent to the war front who might be experiencing the angst described by Heller.  It wouldn’t be surprising if US soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere identify themselves with some characters in Catch-22. The book could perhaps have something in common with journalists who cover wars these days, knowing well they are dicing with death.

Catch-22 exposes the dichotomy between the individual and large organisations, the hierarchical top-down systems where institutional and personal self-interest override experience, something visible today in bulky bureaucracies and a culture driven by rewards based on targets and performance.

It shows how capitalistic and corrupt even militaries can be. Sample these quotes.

"Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun."

"Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them."

"A little grease is what makes this world go round. One hand washes the other. Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

Haven’t we come across situations and people with such traits in our world?

Ever since Covid-19 came upon us, many have been like Yossarian, fearing and avoiding death, ending up in our own Catch-22 situations. We want to go out, work in offices, socialise, travel; yet, we cannot for fear of the virus.

While doctors, nurses, paramedics, essential workers and others have put their lives in the virus’ line of fire, there are many of us avoiding risking our lives, opting to quit and stay safe. It may seem an act of pusillanimity on our part but Heller hails Yossarian as a hero, saying the desire to live is as noble as those who die for their country.

Alas, is Yossrian’s unwillingness to die for the war a noble act? Is it noble to avoid anything life-threatening during this pandemic and choose lesser risks over the risk of death?

Not an easy answer and therein lies the catch!

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