Happy birthday, Yossarian

    We interrupt our usual news-cycle programming for this important cultural message:This year marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of Catch-22, an antiwar novel so subversive at the time of publication that nobody quite knew what to make of it. The twisty ironies, deadpan satirical riffs, and overall anti-establishment ‘tude were so totally out of sync with ‘early ’60s America that it’s no surprise the book initially bombed – not just in the marketplace but among the critics. The New York Times said “the novel gasps for want of craft or sensibility,” and The New Yorker called it “a debris of sour jokes.”Joseph Heller’s first novel (which he began writing in the conformist early ’50s) suffered at first because it was too far ahead of its time. Catch-22 was published long before the lies and madness of Vietnam, and the rot of Watergate. It was published in the heady era of JFK, back when most Americans still believed in their leaders, when they were generally loathe to rail against bureaucracy and corporate conformity. But it ultimately took off anyway, thanks to canny marketing and excellent word of mouth. By the end of 1963 there were 11 printings, and today, 12 years after Heller’s death, the book remains ubiquitous. Its title alone has entered the language, as a general synonym for a no-win situation, but its main themes – the absurdities of war, the power of bureaucracy over the individual – are as relevant as ever.Catch-22 came to mind this week, when I heard that the Obama White House had revised the longstanding condolence-letter policy. Until now, presidential letters were sent only to the families of soldiers killed in combat zones; no such letters were sent to the families of soldiers who went nuts and killed themselves in combat zones. Under the new policy, those families will now hear from the president; as a government spokesman said yesterday, “we have put suicide on equal footing with other deaths.” But not entirely. Under the new policy, no presidential letters will be sent to the families of soldiers who went nuts and killed themselves outside of combat zones – soldiers such as Maj. John Ruocco, who flew 75 helicopter missions in Iraq but committed suicide only after returning stateside.This is classic Catch-22 material; in the novel, the military brass gets so weary of sending out condolence letters, of trying to calibrate the right amount of bureaucratic sympathy, that Colonel Cathcart simply mails out a generic form letter to a grieving spouse, Mrs. Daneeka.”Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father, or brother was killed, wounded, or reported missing in action.”Then there was the group chaplain, who ultimately evaded his grim duties, his “mountainous weight of despair,” by getting himself admitted to the military hospital for a fake disease (Wisconsin shingles). He had lied to escape war’s absurdities, whereupon he happily found himself on the slippery slope of moral relativism. Reading these words today, the chaplain appears to foreshadow the various scandal protagonists in the five decades to come: “The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by the discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue, and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”But the character who really renders the book timeless is Major Major – the ultimate bureaucratic non-entity of whom Heller wrote: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three.” The spirit of Major Major is alive and well today, in any office overseen by a bureaucrat who doesn’t do squat. You may have known such a boss.Here he is in Chapter Nine, talking to several subordinates, in the passage that long ago clinched my devotion to the novel:“From now on,” he said, “I don’t want anyone to come in to see me while I’m here. Is that clear?”“Yes, sir,” said Sergeant Towser. “Does that include me?”“Yes.”“I see. Will that be all?”“Yes.”“What shall I say to people who do come to see you while you’re here?”“Tell them I’m in and ask them to wait.”“Yes, sir. For how long?”“Until I’ve left.”“And then what shall I do with them?”“I don’t care.”“May I send them in to see you after you’ve left?”“Yes.”

    From now on,” Major Major said to the middle-aged enlisted man who took care of his trailer, “I don’t want you to come here while I’m here to ask me anything you can do for me. Is that clear?”“Yes, sir,” said the orderly. “When should I come here to find out if there’s anything you want me to do for you?”“When I’m not here.”“Yes, sir. And what should I do?”“Whatever I tell you to.”“But you won’t be here to tell me. Will you?”“No.”“Then what should I do?”“Whatever needs to be done.”And, of course, we have the book’s main protagonist, the combat flyer Yossarian, whose knowledge that he was going nuts ensured that he was sane and therefore fit to keep flying. He wanted to dissent, but dissent made him feel guilty: “Morale was deteriorating, and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”Hence the dilemma of dissent during wartime, and the constant pressures to conform. Decades after publication, the book still feels fresh. One New York columnist, daring to take the long view, predicted in February 1962: “Yossarian will, I think, live a very long time.” True that. The impulse to question authority will never die.——-Epilogue to yesterday’s post:Unsurprisingly, Texas Gov. Rick Perry did indeed execute the Mexican citizen whose legal rights had been violated. When Humberto Leal Garcia was initially arrested on murder charges, Texas authorities never told him that he had the right to seek legal assistance from the Mexican government under the terms of an international treaty that America had signed. We Americans, of course, fully expect other signing nations to respect our citizens if or when they are arrested abroad – because, hey, we’re us. But we don’t seem to view this treaty as a two-way street.The last word goes to attorney John Bellinger, who was a legal adviser to the State Department under George W. Bush. He told the press yesterday:”If Gov. Perry were president of the United States, responsible for protecting the interests of all Americans when they travel abroad, he would see this issue very differently…It should be obvious to anyone, including officials in Texas, that if Americans, including Texans, are arrested and detained in some other country, and the United States complains that they have not been given their consular notice, it will be pointed out to us that the United States doesn’t comply with our own international obligations. (The Texas execution) cuts the legs out from under the State Department — maybe not immediately, but over the longer run — to make arguments on behalf of Americans who are detained abroad.”

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