We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Glad to see I am not alone in my feelings about a “great novel”

This guy does not like the Joseph Heller book, Catch 22, one little bit, and gives a decent takedown of the book:

This is by intention a humorous book, a work of social satire. But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil. (Did I mention that they are evil? Also stupid?) I found this pretty clever and amusing for about the first twenty pages. But by that time I still had about 450 pages more to go, and the rest of it wasn’t any fun at all.

Absolutely. The problem with such books is that they were written to appeal to folk who no doubt thought that military people were and are inherently ridiculous. In that sense, Heller succeeded: I can think of dozens of lefty acquaintances of mine who have Catch 22 on their bookshelves but they would not be seen dead reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, or for that matter, the Sharpe novels of Richard Cornwell.

But as Lester Hunt, the reviewer, goes on to argue, if Heller really wanted to show some guts as a novelist, he should have attacked the whole idea of WW2 rather than target the lunacies of military bureaucracy (admittedly a fair target). But then, he would have to argue that it would have been better to let a certain A. Hitler and Co. tyrannise Europe and Asia, with all that would flow from that. Tricky, no?

Perhaps more generously, Heller and other writers of a similar ilk – Kurt Vonnegut springs to mind – might have had enough of reading about the feats of “The Greatest Generation” and rebelled. Perhaps some of this was necessary and right; Heller’s book and others of its type hit a receptive audience. Published in 1961, Catch 22 was bound to gain a more avid following from readers increasingly disenchanted with the Vietnam campaign. Heller caught the mood of the times well.

But it is an over-rated book in my opinion, and it is occasionally reassuring to realise that one is not alone in holding that sort of view.

44 comments to Glad to see I am not alone in my feelings about a “great novel”

  • Max

    A Bridge Too Far is historical and congruent with Heller’s observations.

  • Jonathan: amazing, I was telling Nick. M. the exact same thing in an e-mail recently. I enjoyed Catch-22 enormously when I read it some 20 years ago, but at that time I never stopped to think about the wider implications that you point out. I just enjoyed the humor that is based on absurd situations, as war is always full of those, whether we like it or not. The problem with this book is that Heller makes it seem as if those absurdities are entirely due to the evilness and stupidity of the higher commanders (the higher, the more evil and more stupid, if one believes Heller), and not to the very nature of war, not to mention the real evilness (and some stupidity) of the enemy. Not that there were not people on our side who were evil or stupid – I am sure there were, but there is no balance or wider perspective in the book.

  • The real opposite case to Catch-22 is Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, particularly Lt. Greenberg’s post-trial rant. The film presents the key points equally well, although as usual the book is more thoughtful.

    Mobilizing 13 million people, mostly conscripts, for mid-20th.c. mass warfare entailed placing many highly intelligent and sensitive people (not to mention many neurotic ones) under a system designed to get the average person to perform adequately well for the purpose at hand. Nothing — the food, the shelter, or the equipment — was paticularly good, but it was all adequate and all there. most of the time. The enlisted and field officer leadership had to be drawn, for the first part of the war, from the several-hundred-thousand professional pre-WWII military, very few of whom were intellectually outstanding. En masse, it worked, but at the individual level it often produced absurd, wasteful, and frequently unneccesarily lethal results. The point of The Caine Mutiny was essentially a longer, better articulated version of the quote usually attributed to Orwell (in many different versions — something like “We sleep well in our beds at night because rough men are out there doing unpleasant things.”

    Vonnegut gets a break in my book because he went through the firebombing of Dresden as an allied POW held there. His cynicism can be understood, given his circumstances.

  • Nick M

    In defence of Catch-22 it does have some outstanding comic set-pieces: Major Major Major, Former Corporal Wintergreen, and Milo’s list of where “the syndicate” had currently had stuff going to and from.

    Further in it’s defence I think it was quite brave of Heller to wirte a book about aerial warfare without any air to air warfare. The randomness of the risk that flak posed is realised rather well, but as has been pointed out that is just the nature of certain types of warfare and nothing to do with Generals or Colonels.

    But, ultimately the set-pieces are the book’s weakness. It doesn’t really have a story arc and the ending is very weak. The reason for Yossarian’s earlier collapse is telepgraphed from so early on that it doesn’t have any real impact when it is “revealed” and Orr’s antics aren’t so much redemptive as ridiculous.

    If you want to read a novel about WWII aerial combat, read Bomber by Len Deighton.

  • Jack Olson

    One of the strange things about Heller and “Catch 22” is Heller’s own remark about his Air Corps service: “I never had a bad officer.” It astonished the interviewer to whom he said it, who asked how Heller could have written so vividly about so many incompentent or downright evil officers in his most famous novel. Heller explained that he had never said that “Catch 22” represented his own Air Corps service. In fact, he had always insisted that his novel was fiction and its characters fanciful. He was trying to write a military comedy in no sense autobiographical. Where Yossarian and his fellow airmen are bedeviled by a general who keeps raising the number of missions required in a tour of duty, Heller himself completed his tour of duty and returned to the United States.

  • RAB

    The American War experience produced Heller and Catch 22
    The British War experience produced Spike Milligan and the Goons.

  • Kulibar Tree

    “Published in 1961, Catch 22 was bound to gain a more avid following from readers increasingly disenchanted with the Vietnam campaign.”

    Was it? The book quickly became popular – though interestingly it only really took off after the English edition was published in 1962. Even so, in 1962 Vietnam was barely even a cloud on the horizon, so it was evidently appealing to something in the post-WW2, pre-Vietnam generation. Perhaps by ’61/2 enough time had elapsed for people to have a more jaundiced view of the events; or perhaps there was even something about their experience that caught the imagination of Korean vets.


  • People who actually went through WWII and Korea were often shocked by the incredible ineptitude of how a lot of it was handled, and the bureaucratic callousness toward the lives and wellbeing of the troops. The Americans were actually exceptionally bad on this score, actually.

    In both wars the USA extemporized large military efforts and all of the problems associated with “winging it” arose.

    My Dad was drafted during the Korean war, and my father in law was a volunteer for the war. Neither have much good to say about the Army or how it handled things. My father in law became an anti-war activist based on his experience. He was protesting our involvement in Vietnam before Diem was assassinated because as he put it, “I could see those idiots were going to do the same thing all over again.”

    I never read Heller. I got the idea of what the book was about and did not need to read it. There are a lot of better books to read about World War II. That one is popular because it reinforces the prejudices and stereotypes of the academics who assign it to their students.

  • Well that gives me a new perspective on why I never really liked Catch-22. I found it incredibly dreary. One can’t even call it contrived. It goes way beyond that and overrated was how I always thought of it. The film was worse than the book, in spite of having the advantage of reducing the mindless repetition of a weak joke. The basis of good satire is to exaggerate the truth. However there was no truth in Catch-22. Not even a weak caricature. It could only resonate with those with absolutely no experience of the military and a very distorted view of militaries in general.

    Now having (forced by conscription) served in the South African army I am fully aware of how much militaries bungle and some of the particular nasty characters that seem to thrive in a military environment. One of the films that best captured that for me was “A few good men”. The characterization of the people found in militaries there was real. The characterisations were real. I had a colleague who served in the Israeli Army and his thoughts on “A Few Good Men” were identical to mine. He knew some of the incarnations of those people and particularly the Jack Nicholson character as well. There was a universal truth in that story and the characters, irrespective of which army you look at.

  • Bruce Hoult

    “Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall” is better than “Catch 22”.

  • Ham

    On necessary and inevitable evils, which overwhelm kingdoms at once, all disputation is vain: when they happen they must be endured. But it is evident, that these bursts of universal distress are more dreaded than felt: thousands and ten thousands flourish in youth, and wither in age, without the knowledge of any other than domestick evils, and share the same pleasures and vexations whether their kings are mild or cruel, whether the armies of their country persue their enemies, or retreat before them. While courts are disturbed with intestine competitions, and ambassadours are negotiating in foreign countries, the smith still plies his anvil, and the husbandman drives his plow forward; the necessaries of life are required and obtained, and the successive business of the seasons continues to make its wonted revolutions. – Samuel Johnson

    I think the book is excellent and quite libertarian.

    Joseph Heller flew bombing missions in the war himself, so he’s got every right to comment on the experience. He writes from the perspective of the individual who was actually there at the core of events, not as a political ideologue reacting to what he’s read in history books. It’s not about the fight against Hitler: it’s about those domestic evils that the individual men experience, which Samuel Johnson identified in contrast to ‘historical’ events like WWII. Much of the American force was drafted to fight: forced by their government to fight in a war against other equally perplexed individuals by their respective European and Asian governments. As an Englishman not currently living under Nazis (currently…), I’m glad that happened, but I can sympathise with an American who thought it was all a bit weird.

    Then, of course, there is the source of much of the comedy: bureaucracy. Everyone who reads this blog knows the unwieldy nature of big administrations. The case of Doc Daneeka being presumed dead by the military clerk, because the Daneeka’s name was on the roster of a downed plane, even though he is standing right in front of him is a caricature of all of our relationships with the bureaucracy.

    I suppose it’s a little long, but reading it doesn’t make you a hippy or a pacifist. 🙂

  • RAB

    I agree Bruce.
    You wont get many lit critics on board though.
    There is a cynicism at the heart of Catch 22 that is corrosive.
    I dont like, or care what happens to, any of the characters, even Yosarin.
    It may be surreal and clever, but as has been mentioned already, it is a one trick pony, fleshed out to the point of pretentiousness.
    But then they always say you’ll never go broke underestimating the pretentiousness of a Literary Award Panel.
    I dont think I even finished it.
    Yep Spike for me. The war really did make him insane. Not pretend insane either.

  • Julian Taylor

    Having had to do Catch 22 for an Oxbridge A-level back in the mists of time I still recall most of the book. Unfortunately I’ve never had the inclination to re-read it since, unlike many other great 20th century American fiction writers like Vonnegut or Steinbeck. I felt the movie (especially Alan Arkin) captured the bewilderment of the subjects perfectly, indeed far better in fact than Heller’s own character descriptions did.

  • I thought Catch-22 was an excellent book, and if Heller intended to covey a message that military people were evil and stupid, that message got lost on me.

    I thought the central message was that militaries, especially those in war time, by their very nature are filled with absurdities, regardless of the good or otherwise intentions of the men who command it. From what I know about the modern-day British military through friends in the Royal Marines, this message is not inaccurate.

    I also thought Catch-22 was extremely funny, employing some wonderful turns of phrase.

  • Nasikabatrachus

    The point of The Caine Mutiny was essentially a longer, better articulated version of the quote usually attributed to Orwell (in many different versions — something like “We sleep well in our beds at night because rough men are out there doing unpleasant things.”)

    Are you sure you don’t mean Churchill, rather than Orwell? That quotation strikes me as a Churchill-like thing to say.

  • nichevo

    I believe the proper verbiage is (yes, it was Orwell):

    “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

    Churchil said, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

    Kipling had numerous passages along the lines of “making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.”

    I couldn’t say if you can find an equivalent quote in Cicero or Aeschylus. Perhaps in those times the cynicism was not quite so great. But I believe that the many have always been protected by the few; and human nature being what it is, who would expect this to be constantly appreciated at its true worth?

  • Nick: you forgot “the man who saw double”.

    Lexington: I think the book has been so popular primarily because it is so funny, (for most people, anyway), and tragic, at the same time. But I can see how someone with a different sense of humor can find it dull.

    Personally, having read the book soon after finishing my military service (in the rear, naturally – the bureaucracy is always at its worst in the rear), it did not at all strike me as unrealistic.

    BTW, I am surprised no one mentioned The Good Soldier Š vejk yet.

  • Jim

    Ham is right: it’s the military bureaucracy that is ‘stupid and evil’ in Catch-22, not ‘military people’ in general. An absurd system turns those at its top into fools and monsters and those at its bottom into dupes. I thought this was a fairly obvious message of the book, and one that should be appealing to Samizdatistas. Unless you believe that the military is somehow immune to the problems that bedevil bureaucracies, of course. But that would be just silly.

  • Nick M

    Yeah, Alisa I’m surprised nobody mentioned it. There’s a copy on the shelf and the missus keeps saying I should give it a go.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Orwell definitely said “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” in Notes on Nationalism. He also quoted from the poem ‘Tommy’ the line “Yes, making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep” in his obituary on Kipling, and follows up with “He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.” But it appears that the “rough men” version is unsourced and disputed.

    It’s a good quote, though, whoever said it, and one with which I’m sure Orwell would have agreed.

  • Chris Harper (Counting Cats)

    I couldn’t say if you can find an equivalent quote in Cicero or Aeschylus.

    At the time of Aeschylus to be a citizen in Greece was to be a warrior and periodically engage in war. Although, by the time of Cicero, Italy was secure from regular invasion, Roman armies were constrained by lack of citizens to form them. Only Roman citizens could be legionaries.

    Experience of the military was ubiquitous is both cultures. There was no sizable class of “liberals” to do the despising.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Exactly what I think about MASH.
    You need rules, and you need someone to apply them intelligently.

  • Julian Taylor

    British military bureaucracy at its best for the Falklands Memorial Parade:

    Serving [i.e. still in the Armed Forces] Veterans Dress Code
    Full Ceremonial (No swords)
    RN & RM – No 1A
    No 2 Dress/Service Dress
    RAF – No1 Service Dress
    FIDF – No 1 Dress

    Swords (ceremonial or otherwise) are classed as lethal weapons, while sidearms and the SA80 assault rifle presumably are not.

  • Jack Olson

    Paul Fussell, a professor of literature who saw combat as an infantry officer in WWII, wrote “Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War.” His chapter on Chickenshit remarks, “The literature of chickenshit is extensive, and not surprisingly, since so many authors-to-be were, in the services, precisely the types that are chickenshit’s eternal targets, bright Jewish boys like Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller, or intelligent sarcastic kids from good colleges, like Kingsley Amis…It is notable how much of the writing from the Second World War tends not so much to convey news from the battlefield as to expose the chickenshit lurking behind it.”

    Today’s literature of chickenshit reflects not mass experience of military chickenshit but mass experience of corporate and government chickenshit. The first type created the public appetite for novels like “Catch 22”, the other two created the public appetite for television shows like “Yes, Minister”, “The Office”, and comic strips like “Dilbert.”

  • Kim du Toit

    Sorry, I love Catch-22 — it’s one of my top five novels of all time, because it takes absurdity to a whole new level. Along the way, the story also plays with time (copied later by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction).

    You’re not supposed to love Yossarian, you’re supposed to feel dread at his situation, and schadenfreude at the predicaments of those who torment him.

    I never read anything past the story itself — all that “anti-war” and “anti-military” crap is just projection on the part of others.

    The fact is that the military is no different from any large corporation (except for that “life or death” thing), and I’ve seen at first hand things which echo Catch-22’s machinations.

    (Example: I’d taken a new job at a company; they’d already relocated me, and I’d been working there for two weeks, when a letter from HR showed up at my new address, informing me that they regretted that they could not offer me a position at that time. My boss’s only comment, when I showed him the letter, was: “I’m just surprised that they didn’t use the internal mail system to get the letter to you.” Now THAT would have been a Catch-22 moment.)

    Of course, you’re entitled to think it’s overrated as a work of fiction — I happen to feel the same way about the indescribably dreary Starship Troopers — but Catch-22 remains one of the funniest pieces of absurd fiction ever written.

  • Joseph Heller

    You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about you Limey bastard. St Peter had be sign his copy on entry!

  • All of this is true, and there are other unrecognised PC travesties.

    “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, for instance – nothing but peurile jibes about the evil stupidity of psychiatric hospitals. Then there’s “The Trial”, which is merely a feeble, leftist rant about the stupidity and evil of arbitrary power.

    Either that, or they had a larger point to make that bounces off the craniums of those who far prefer propaganda to art.

  • Kexington Breen

    If Americans are particularly bad at war and the military, who is particularly good? If they’re so good, no doubt they have the best military in the world, and no one can stand against them, right?

    What rubbish!

  • Bernie

    I read it in 1979 and was in stitches over lines like “pass the salt, Walt”.

    Later I bought “Something Happened”. Now that is a novel worthy of contempt. Nothing happened at all but dreary dour dreariness.

  • I am really quite astounded that so many of you dislike Catch-22. Really, it’s not about military people being “evil and stupid”, it’s about the arbitrary lunacy of ‘organised’ warfare in general from the perspective of the conscripted man on the ground. I would have thought it was most appealing to the average libertarian – the individual is totally disempowered by a lunatic system of command and control, and is forced to take increasingly desperate measures to escape his otherwise inevitable death at the hands of the centralised system.

    As for the remark that the novel:

    should have attacked the whole idea of WW2

    It is hard to know how to interpret it. I think it’s quite clear that a number of people seem to have entirely missed the point of the novel. But aside from that, the war in its entirety is portrayed as a calamatous, near-random series of mis-steps, which is more of less what any war really is.

    But really: Yossarian represents the rational individual. ‘The War’, and ‘war’ generally, as embodied by Yossarian’s numerous superiors, are the irrational forces of collective human decision making come to torment him. More fundamentally, Yossarian faces the essential test of rationality described by John Fowles’ wonderful character Conchis in ‘The Magus’ – does one die for the stupidity of dogma, or does one rationally decide that it is always better to run away from the insanity of killing other people you have nothing against in order to survive.

    I am at a loss to see how the hell any of this is “leftist”, frankly.

    It’s also quite sad that some of you appear to be requiring “balance” of the book. Would it have been a better novel if it also featured a German Yossarian, railing against irrational Nazi officers? If you cannot see that it makes no difference, and that Heller as a WWII veteran chose to write from a perspective he himself experienced (including much of the tragic/comic insanity) then with respect I think you do not understand the difference between art and a documentary.

    Finally, I must speak up for the ultimate free marketeer, Milo Minderbinder, who is prescient enough to subcontract the bombing of his own airfield to his own squadron in order to deal ‘commercially’ with the requirements of the war and who sets up a black-market empire spanning the entire European theatre – surely an individualist antihero if there ever was one.

    But honestly, get politics out of your mind and read it as it is, as a funny, painful, beautiful novel.

  • Jacob

    I cannot comment on this book because I haven’t read it. I tried a couple of times but lost interest after a few pages.

  • Patrick, I have to agree. However, when it comes to WWII, I personally cannot get politics out of my mind.

    Chronology aside, I still am convinced that this book has greatly contributed to the anti-war mindset in the second half of the last century, for better and worse. It does not mean that the book itself was originally leftist, only that it has been interpreted as such by those with leftist tendencies.

  • If Americans are particularly bad at war and the military, who is particularly good?

    Huh? And that is apropos what exactly?

    I am much less hostile to Catch-22 than Johnathan, though in truth it was an utterly disposable ‘airport’ novel to me that made me chuckle a few times and then not think about t again for twenty years or so.

  • la marquise

    And isn’t Slaughterhouse 5 the only place where David Irving is still cited as a respectable and reliable historian?

  • reidish

    You lot aren’t very comfortable with the whole idea of satire, are you? It must be confusing and at times irritating, I know, but sometimes authors make characters say all sorts of perverse and disorientating things. Some authors even develop characters who espouse views utterly contrary to their own.

    Keep going, though. Once you become aware of some of these terribly subtle techniques, there’s all sorts of richness to explore.

    Do try not to get angry.

  • La Marquise – Presumably that was a joke, but it’s not very funny. Having quoted Irving gave Vonnegut no end of regrets during his lifetime, and he was clearly no neo-Nazi (even the most frivolous examination of his work clearly reveals a man who despised all forms of violence), and it is also worth remembering that at the time of the publication of ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, Irving wasn’t a public neo-Nazi figurehead.

  • nick g.

    As Dean Koontz wisely commented, it is history that will decide if this is a great book, or not. If lots of people are still reading it in 100 years time, then it will have earned the title ‘Great’. If not, so long, and onto the next book. Koontz himself does not seem to have written a book that is a classic- how many people reread them? Still, his books are competent enough that they help to pass the time.
    And what other standard of Greatness is there, except enduring fame?

  • la Marquise

    Steve, I wasn’t trying to be funny or clever and of course I knew that Irving hadn’t come out as a holocaust denier when Vonnegut quoted him. But I was asking a question in the hope that someone else would do the hard work for me in analysing what this says about about what is wrong with Slaughterhouse V, – a very funny book that used a tragedy that Vonnegut survived to make its point, .. its point that .. what ? that war is loathsome and Vonnegut a really nice person who ‘despises all forms of violence’? He didn’t suspect that the statistics and the details concerning the motivation behind the Dresden bombing might be informed or even distorted by a hatred of the allied victory. In the circumstances a reasonable oversight . But the book remains flawed, it remains sentimental and his giving houseroom to Irving’s expression of outrage at the allies has something to do with it.

  • John K

    I haven’t read “Catch 22”. Would any Muslim cleric who hasn’t read it either care to give me his views on it?

  • I’m surprised nobody has commented on Starship Troopers yet, a book that is far more worthy of scorn. As a work of prose it is dreary beyond belief, repeatative and unexciting. As a political tract it is authoritarian in tone and naieve. One of it’s main messages is that one has to surrender oneself to authority- somehting I imagine most Libertarians would be dead set against. The arguement that it only preaches this for the army holds no water either as Heinlein’s society was a military Junta. As a tome espusing fascism surely few others have been as popular? More than that it espouses a bizarre innocence in its faith in the army. As many have noted the army is a buerocracy, with all the troubles that entails.

  • One flew over the cuckoo’s nest?
    Ever hear of the time in the eighties 10 men walked into hospitals in the USA and claimed to be mad?
    They revealed the ruse-so as to reveal the utter stupidity of supposing that a shrink has ‘insight’ while his patient does not-and the hospitals wouldn’t believe them, wouldn’t set them free; they were forced to pretend to recover.
    Then the originator of the ruse spoke up and they were all released.
    Then they said, “Send as many fakes as you like, we will detect them all.’
    No more fakes were sent.
    50 were nevertheless ‘detected’ and turned back at the gates(!).
    After which psychiatry in the USA was forced to reinvent itself or lose it’s job, by purveying loads of new ‘disorders’ in the style of consumer empowerment.

    What’s not evil about that? Except, perhaps, the psychiatric monolith has lost the power to imprison people indefinitely based on hearsay and opinion, without trial.

    Let’s face it, many psychiatrists have the ‘God Delusion’, which makes them mentally ill.
    And as dangerous as a loaded gun.

  • For a famous expatriot writer (Nabokov) one source of contact with America was to be found in the books optimistic publishers sent him to read. After he had received CATCH-22, Vera wrote back on his behalf that he made it a rule not to give his opinion”since he is a harsh judge. But he agrees to make an exception in this case…: ‘This book is a torrent of trash, dialogical diarrhea, the automatic produce of a prolix typewriter.’ Please do not repeat this either to the author or to his publisher.”


  • RE: I am surprised no one mentioned The Good Soldier Š vejk yet.

    “. . . it is with a great relief and pleasure that we are hereby dutifully reporting that Book Two and Book(s) Three&Four of our new translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Š vejk During the World War(Link) are available for sale as paperbacks at http://zenny.com.

    We hope this announcement finds you in good health and disposition and hungry for more adventures of the good soldier … after all these years.”

    More information on the Svejk phenomenon at http://SvejkCentral.com(Link)

    Also, Svejk is on FaceBook now(Link):