“There was only one catch”

John Rentoul

Catch 22 cover 177x300 There was only one catchDavid Frum has had a go at Catch-22, one of my favourite books. Only on re-reading it in middle age does he seem to have realised that Yossarian’s view of the Second World War is corrosively cynical:

Yossarian takes it utterly for granted that the United States and its allies will win the war. On the way to winning, however, the Allies will necessarily take some casualties. Yossarian has no objection to the principle that some must die to achieve victory. He simply prefers that the “some” be somebody other than him.

More than that, I think, Yossarian accepts that the war is necessary and moral. But that still does not make it all right for him to be killed.

Reconsidering this in my middle age, I do not know about “profoundly deep and wise”, because that would be tautological, but I still think it is inescapable.

I do not know if Frum’s objection is that Joseph Heller’s brutal clarity is true, and he doesn’t like it, or that it isn’t, but I still think it is right, as is his fine exposition of the sucker’s pay-off:

“What if everybody acted like that?” a conventionally minded character challenges Heller’s Captain Yossarian. “Then I’d certainly be a damn fool to act any other way, wouldn’t I?”

My reaction to Catch-22 now is quite different from Frum’s. It makes me respect our armed forces even more. They know that war is terrible and that some of it is bleakly absurd; above all, they know that they might be killed doing it; yet they do it because they think it is right and honourable.

Fortunately most war is not as absurd as Heller’s viciously exaggerated Italian campaign; but his are deep truths about the struggle against pointlessness that I think will stand for all time.

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  • zandeman

    I was thinking the same thing.

  • zandeman

    Yep. That would be Heller.

  • Pacificweather

    It seems to me it is more about the balance of effort. How much effort should we put into war and how much should we put into avoiding it. Timing is also a factor.
    The Balkan war ended after three years when the allies bombed the bridges of Belgrade. If they had bombed them after 3 weeks many lives might have been saved. What price were the Serbs prepared to pay for Greater Serbia was the question that was not asked at the start. Had they been under no illusion that they were going to pay a terrible price if they proceeded then they would have considered the wisdom of the strategy. The correct intellectual and military effort was not balanced and applied at the correct time.

  • Pacificweather

    If he had not nicked it from the front page of the Economist, you would have been even more impressed wouldn’t you John? The old ones are the best every time.

  • Barretta

    So your idea is that no one should have resisted the Nazis? I hope the absurdity of this idea is immediately apparent to you.

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