David's Bookclub

A Rather Misguided Catch-22 Reaction

At the Independent blog, John Rentoul replies to my book club entry on Catch-22.

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.

I have to say, of all possible reactions to Catch-22, this is one that makes least sense to me. The whole point to that book is that fighting wars - any war, even World War II - is not right, not honorable, that no sane individual would ever consider any cause other than his own personal survival.

Catch-22 is funny because, and only because, it's set in the context of an armed force so overwhelmingly powerful that its protagonist's defection cannot possibly make any difference to the outcome of the war. The book stresses again and again that of course the United States would win - and at comparatively light cost to itself. The book wouldn't be nearly so funny if it were set in the Battle of Britain. It would be unfunny, for different reasons, if set at Verdun or Gettysburg or Stalingrad.

That's the truth that the book's admirers, among whom I retain a continuing semi-membership, most grapple with. Rentoul's appraisal goes too easy, both on Heller and on himself.