Joseph Heller’s book, “Catch -22” has joined other book titles, like “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Perfect Storm,” and even “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” as an essential cultural reference point and a useful metaphor that can explain more contemporary situations. I had never seen the movie before; I had read the book…a long time ago. I checked my listing of books read and realized, fittingly enough, that I had read Heller’s classic, when I was in the Army, in Vietnam. Furthermore, the very next book read was another classic, but a more conventional military history, “Hell in a Very Small Place – The Siege of Dien Binh Phu.” What a juxtaposition. Which book more truly conveyed the “truth” of the military experience?
After half a century, I retained mainly two scenarios from Heller’s novel. There is the issue that the title references: In order to get out of the military for being crazy, you have to request a discharge, but the very act of requesting it proves you are not crazy. Voila. You can never get out. The other was form over substance. The general demanded that that aerial photographs showed a “tight bombing pattern.” It did not matter if you really hit the target.
The movie was released in 1970, the year after I read the novel. Mike Nichols was the director. Yes, a cliché, “a star-studded cast,” but so it was. Alan Arkin played the protagonist, Captain John Yossarian. There is also Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight in a memorable performance as Lt. Milo Minderbender, who is the quintessential wheeler-dealer, Martin Balsam is impressive as Col. Cathcart, and even Orson Wells plays a key role as General Driddle.
The movie brought back to mind numerous other aspects of the novel that I had forgotten, aspects of war that are completely omitted or only lightly covered in more traditional histories, such as Fall’s account of the French disaster. For example, there is all that “fetish” about medals, Napoleon’s “hochets,” which is traditionally translated as “bobbles,” something you would give a baby to distract them. And thus the movie line from Col. Cathcart: “Don’t you want more oak leaf clusters on your air medal…” Ah, motivation. In another scene they award medals for bombing the ocean, the “logic of war” meant that no one could back down when it was obviously a farce. There is the doctor who “earns his flight pay” by being on the manifest of the flight. When the plane crashes, a guy is mourning him, because the documents indicate he was on the plane, even though the doctor is standing right next to him. The written document trumps reality. In another scene, one of the pilots is determine to kill Col. Cathcart, “before he kills us all.” The pilot proclaims: “the first sane thing I have ever done.” He does not use the “coin of the realm” in Vietnam: “fragging.” “Cheap available” women, with hunger being an all-important impetus was depicted well by Nichols, and a daily reality in Vietnam.
Milo (Jon Voight) deserves his own paragraph. He is the quintessential wheeler-dealer, trading the silk in Yossarian’s parachute for Egyptian cotton, while providing Yossarian one share in “MM Enterprises” as a substitute to jump with. Real war? From the classic Vietnam War documentary, “Hearts and Minds” there is the scene of a Vietnamese wheeler-dealer at his desk in Saigon proclaiming: “I am a Johnny-come-lately to war profiteering… peace is coming, whether we like it or not.” In another documentary, one interviewee proclaimed that even a helicopter could be bought off the black market in Saigon. But isn’t the scene where Milo arranges for the American Airforce to bomb its own base, in a contractual obligation with the Germans, who will buy the Egyptian cotton, just too “over-the-top”? One might think so, yet it has recently been confirmed, via recently un-earthed documents, the historical allegations that Richard Nixon had taken steps to “throw a monkey wrench” in the Paris peace talks with the Vietnamese, in order to prolong the war until after the election, because if the peace talks were successful, his political opponent, Humbert Humphrey might win the election.
Life imitating art, and I would have the opportunity to read the art while experiencing the real-life prolongation of that war. Heller got it right, and even the slap-stick aspects of Nichols’ movie were more right than wrong. 5-stars.