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Sixty years later, can we still relate to ‘Catch-22’?

A picture of a 25-Pounder Howitzer, the standard field gun of the commonwealth forces in World War 2
A 25-Pounder Howitzer, the standard field gun of the Commonwealth forces in WW2.

Catch-22 had it’s 60th birthday recently, meaning it has probably started thinking about retiring. After all, with bombing runs still being flown by the young, how effective was the book ultimately?

I read Catch-22 at the onset of the Ukrainian-Russian war, and could not put it down for a single moment, and despite there being over 500 pages of it, I wished it had gone on for another 500.

Why? Because it hit terribly close to home.

The old cliché of ‘Blankity-Blank is more relevant today than when it was made’ is a tried and true one, you hear it tossed around in discussions surrounding works dealing with big social issues: sex, race, war, but while it’s framed as a compliment to the work, it’s also an indictment of a world which refuses to learn its lessons.

For example (and you’ll have seen this coming if you read the headline) Catch-22 genuinely is at least as -if not more- relevant today than when it was made.

That may not be such a good thing.

Catch-22’s relatability in the modern day is a direct consequence of, in a way, its failure. War won against the Anti-War movement. The book only works now because it’s largest goals remain unachieved.

Catch-22 has a noble cause, it is principally, unabashedly, an anti-war book.

The novel Catch-22 on a bookshelf with several other books.
Catch-22 has well and truly cemented itself as part of the literary canon.

The book was written by Joseph Heller in 1953 (though the book wasn’t published until 1961), a man who in 1942, at 19-years-old, got into a B-25 Bombardier and flew over the Italian Front as part of 60 missions with the 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, 12th Air Force, a title which dizzyingly confirms the existence of at least 1 through 487 other bombardment squadrons likewise manned by men young enough they couldn’t legally drink in their home country.

The book is commonly regarded as one of the most significant indictments of the illogic of war and its cherished bureaucracies. I’d agree with that, but here’s where it makes me uncomfortable: I relate to it.

Joseph Heller has been dead for 23 years, his book is 60 years old, the war it talks about happened 80 years ago, and yet I still all but flinch at the line:

“You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.”

Spoken by Colonel Korn, Chapter 13.

For modern context, the utterances of a radio operator who was part of a guard post on Ukrainian owned ‘Snake Island (Zmiinyi Island)’ recently told a Russian warship to ‘Go fuck yourself.’ Which sure, the witticism initially makes me chuckle, its stiff-upper lip bravery is commendable, and it’s utterly relatable.

But, the man who said it, Roman Hrybov, ended up a POW for several weeks, as did twelve of the other men guarding the post, six were killed.

And here’s where Catch-22 still works for me (although I wish it didn’t), the bureaucracy of war has managed to turn that phrase ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself’ into a piece of propaganda.

At a time when every single guard was thought dead, you could already buy the slogan on t-shirts, fridge magnets, images of the Ukrainian flag with the ‘Don’t tread on me’ snake and the phrase written underneath, I’ve seen one man bake a cake with it written on top in icing.

And, you know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. Is the truth not that those killed died due to twenty years of inaction? Died due to a legacy of powerful men killing just as indiscriminately?

The quote is just the new, sardonic version of ‘We Can Do It.’ for the post-millennium, irony poisoned crowd.

A sea-mine displayed in front of a store in Canberra
A sea-mine proudly displayed in a small Canberran suburb.

My suggestion is not that Putin would drop all his detonators and pride after having read Catch-22, nor should the book have to have that sort of power.

Nor am I suggesting that support for the Ukraine is a bad thing, it is categorically a good thing, what is genuinely bad though, is support for War itself.

I shouldn’t relate to Catch-22, it’s the kind of book you hope will be obsolete within a few years. You hope that the generation growing up will get to read it as a funny throwback to when war was this silly thing we still did, and not the living reality of every shoulder-tensed person on earth.

But we’ve known war is illogical for generations, and with illogical war after illogical, subsequent war, this only compounds, the longer time goes on in this spiral, the more poignant the book becomes.

Catch-22’s frustration with the bear-facedness of this knowledge is part of its modern appeal. As represented in it’s eponymous Catch-22:

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

Catch-22 as explained in chapter 5.

It’s in these sorts of loops of logic and rhetoric that we (or at the very least I) get caught in during times of war. We try to make sense of a fundamentally non-sensical thing.

Catch-22 is a sly wink, a reassurance that yes, these things are terrible, and yes, they are illogical, and it inspires a vigilance against the propaganda and bureaucracy of war that is essential in the modern day.

This is ultimately what makes it so relatable, it is representative of a loop, it asks ‘Wait a minute, haven’t we been here before?’, and the tired, modern reader knows that the answer is yes.

So long as the fear remains that we will go to war again, restart the cycle, refuse to learn from our mistakes, the book will maintain its relatability.

Catch-22 must put off its retirement. The fact is that we still need it.

All photos by Ezra Ryan