Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 needs no introduction, so allow me to introduce it. So popular and deeply entrenched is the novel in American culture that it’s difficult to find a single person who’s read it. Such illogical, paradoxical, and absurd statements characterize the plot and subplots of the hilarious, disciplined, in-a-class-of-its-own novel. The crux behind its nearly 500 pages: Yossarian, a bombardier in WWII, has flown his quota of missions and doesn’t want to fly anymore; he wants to be grounded. Colonel Cathcart, however, raises the bar every time it’s reached. In order to get grounded for good, then, Yossarian, a regular at the hospital for both real and imagined illnesses, has to prove he’s crazy, as in insane and unfit to fly. But there’s a catch: he who’s afraid of flying bombing missions and desires to be grounded is perfectly rational and sane, and since he’s sane, he has to fly. In the words of the novel’s omniscient narrator, speaking of Yossarian’s best friend and roommate, Orr: “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.” “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” says Yossarian, using the official name of the rule.
Heller himself was a bombardier in WWII, but he emphasized that the novel is not autobiographical:
Virtually none of the attitudes in the book — the suspicion and distrust of the officials in the government, the feelings of helplessness and victimization, the realization that most government agencies would lie — coincided with my experiences as a bombardier in World War II. The antiwar and antigovernment feelings in the book belong to the period following World War II: the Korean War, the cold war of the fifties.
The novel, then, rails not against a single war, but against what President Dwight Eisenhower contributed to and, finally, saw as problematic at the same time Heller was handwriting his masterpiece: the military-industrial complex and the wars of choice it demands. And so as Agent Orange wilted the trees and blood soaked into the ground of Vietnam, the printing runs of the paperback edition of Catch-22 had to be more than doubled, according to Heller. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t caused a similar spike in readership, the wrath camouflaged in Heller’s black humor should nonetheless still be directed at those wars. Certainly, the Afghanistan war, being the United States’ longest and, perhaps, most convoluted war, falls under Heller’s bombsite.
One character in the novel, Milo Minderbinder, especially captures the essence of the amoral, opportunistic American war profiteer. Money dictates Milo’s morality. He is at the helm of a vast syndicate, “M & M Enterprises,” and what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country, and everybody has a share, he says repeatedly. Minderbinder aims to corner the world market on any and all foodstuffs: eggs, pitted dates, oranges, chickpeas, and so on. Milo sells his products to the mess halls — at a profit. Here’s Milo’s justification for war profiteering: “Look, I didn’t start this war, Yossarian…. I’m just trying to put it on a businesslike basis. Is anything wrong with that?”
Yossarian thinks there is. But Yossarian’s crazy: he’s naked and sitting on the limb of a tree as he listens to Milo make his case. The Afghanistan war is plagued by Milo Minderbinders, and is bereft of (in)sane Yossarians. The profits being made in that country are obscene, considering the human suffering happening there. In Kandahar Province, one of the most dangerous in the country, a huge Post Exchange — a type of retail store located on military installations worldwide — is swimming in profit. The Post Exchange sells everything from Operation Enduring Freedom teddy bears to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, according to Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America. Echoing Milo’s repeated sales pitches that, say, casaba melons are “going for a song in Damascus” or that “Polish sausage is going for peanuts in Cracow,” the Harley-Davidson dealership promises the lowest prices and a prompt delivery as soon as the purchaser returns to the States.
Milo, always looking for a way to diversify his income, even contracts with the Nazis, getting a good return on destroyed American planes and supply sheds. There is, of course, no direct real-world comparison for Milo’s doing business with the Germans. But Heller never suggests that an equivalence exists: to make his points starker, Heller strips his characters’ actions of their expedient rationalizations and justifications, laying bare the moral maneuverings underlying them. Philip Toynbee, in “Here’s Greatness — in Satire,” praises Heller’s satirical technique, “The method of satire is to inflate reality so that all its partially concealed blemishes turn into monstrous and apparent deformations.” Viewed satirically, then, Milo’s contracting with the Germans invites many real-world comparisons.
The C.I.A., for example, sold Stingers — portable, shoulder-fired launchers equipped with heat-seeking missiles — to Afghan rebels in the 1980s. The Afghans were fighting off a Soviet invasion. (Soviets were attempting to shore up the communist Afghan government. Americans were fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union and saw an opportunity to give the Soviets “their Vietnam” in Afghanistan.) Although the United States and the Afghan rebels momentarily had a common enemy in the Soviet Union, each group would eventually turn on the other, and many of the Stingers “had gone to commanders associated with anti-American radical Islamist leaders,” according to Steve Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars. The plan was a “success”: after years of hemorrhaging money and taking casualties, the Soviets withdrew, defeated. But then civil war broke out in Afghanistan.
Because the lethal, accurate, and high-tech Stingers could be turned on commercial airliners and warplanes alike, the weapons had to be bought back. The money to repurchase the Stingers, though, would go directly to those who had them: “the warlords who were destroying Afghanistan’s cities and towns” in the civil war, according to Coll. Many of the cash-receiving warlords, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, were anti-American, and these same warlords — minus the ones who decided to re-brand themselves and become a part of President Karzai’s government — are now either members of the Taliban insurgency or an associated militant group. Meanwhile, Milo Minderbinder is making it hand over fist selling, buying back, and then reselling the goods. Everyone has a share, and what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country, he assures his superiors.
But the self-defeating logic of the Afghanistan war goes beyond the foolish and short-sighted exchange of weapons. Another major theme in Catch-22 is bureaucratic incompetency. That’s also a theme in the Afghanistan war. In Afghanistan, as in Catch-22, people of power let internal disputes hinder the larger mission. The State Department battles behind the scenes with the Defense Department. President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had deep rivalries with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Doug Lute, of the National Security Council. Lute and Eikenberry are old friends and had conspired against Holbrooke. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in Little America, reports:
Lute spent much of his time organizing meetings and compiling data that showed how the war was being lost. He believed his work was of vital importance, and he thought that Holbrooke needed to follow his lead. He bristled at the attention journalists lavished upon Holbrooke…. Before long, the two men’s staffs were in open warfare with each other. Lute’s team would shcedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town.
Compare that with the following excerpt from Catch-22:
“Yes, I know I understand. Our first job is to capture Dreedle away from the enemy. Right?”
General Peckem laughed benignly, “No, Scheisskopf. Dreedle’s on our side, and Dreedle is the enemy. General Dreedle commands four bomb groups that we simply must capture in order to continue our offensive. Conquering General Dreedle will give us the aircraft and vital bases we need to carry our operations into other areas. And that battle, by the way, is just about won.”
The leaders of the war for Afghanistan and the leaders of the war unfolding around Heller’s fictional island of Pianosa have fratricidal tendencies. The top leaders of both wars are stuck in an unproductive cycle of one-upmanship. Chandrasekaran reports that, when it came to Afghanistan, “The war cabinet was too often at war with itself,” adding that Holbrooke, Lute, and Eikenberry could have accomplished much more “if they hadn’t been consumed with one-upping one another.” The warring sides of the war cabinet wanted to win their way, and the internal fights over the way that the Afghanistan war should be executed ultimately damned the entire military effort to failure, Chandrasekaran concludes.
Colonel Cathcart, as with other colonels, generals, and officers in Catch-22, lets the desire of personal glory cloud his execution of the larger war. Colonel Cathcart no longer cares if the bombs his bombardiers drop hit their targets. He’d rather have the bombs fall in a tight bomb pattern, which makes for a better aerial photo and increases the likelihood of having his picture in The Saturday Evening Post. Colonel Cathcart never thinks of the lives of the men risking everything to fly these missions. Nor does he think of the enemy targets that stand intact after the mission.
In Afghanistan, the military’s top brass had been obsessed with a similarly misguided pattern: the tight concentration of President Obama’s “surge” troops. The majority of the troops went to sparsely populated, strategically unimportant regions in Helmand Province. The failure to deploy more of troops to more crucial areas in Afghanistan — to Kandahar, the birthplace and a stronghold of the insurgency, and to eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other insurgent groups cross the Pakistan border to attack NATO and Afghan forces — is a major focus of Chandrasekaran’s reporting.
Once deployed, following the orders of their superiors, the Marines dug in. Marine commanders obstinately refused to move their forces from the villages and hamlets they patrolled. Marine generals wanted to make Helmand a “showcase.” Chandrasekaran saw that the Marines might win Helmand, but in the fight for it, they’d lose Afghanistan. He voiced this concern to a general, and the general had this to say: “That would be just fine for the Corps.”
But the war effort was damned long before the formation of the Obama administration. The ruling class of our nominal ally in the region, Pakistan, is so obsessed with enriching and glorifying itself that the entire country’s coming undone. To keep pressure on India, its archenemy, Pakistan not only allows but encourages Islamic extremists to operate within its borders. (American officials should understand this: it’s not much different from what they did in Afghanistan during the proxy war there against the Soviet Union.) These extremist groups not only provide safe havens to the Afghan insurgency; they also provide fighters and suicide bombers. Because the country believes it needs them to counter India’s superior military, Pakistan is unwilling (and possibly unable) to eradicate the Islamic radicals.
The United States can’t cross the border to take out the insurgents for fear that Pakistan will retaliate by increasing its support to insurgents or by closing down U.S. supply routes that run from its port city of Karachi to landlocked Afghanistan, or both. So: on the one hand, if the United States doesn’t act to disrupt the insurgency’s network of havens that it uses to recuperate, regroup, and resupply, then it loses; on the other, if the United States does go into Pakistan to see the war it began to its necessary end, then it loses its most important “ally” in the region, and along with it, the ability to resupply its troops. The United States loses.
The Afghanistan war, then, is so convoluted that it even outdoes Heller’s seemingly exhaustive satirical wit. Luke Mogelson, a writer at The New York Times Magazine, in his most recent piece, proved that he has the eye and the talent to capture the absurd, Heller-ian side of war. Briefly in the piece, Mogulson addresses the recent rise of “insider attacks,” or attacks by Afghan National Army soldiers — our allies — on NATO forces:
The Americans claim that many of the killings result from cultural differences; the Taliban claims to have infiltrated the security forces; the Afghan government claims “foreign spy agencies” are to blame. Whatever their provenance, the attacks have eroded trust to such a degree that NATO has begun designating some personnel as “guardian angels.” It is the guardian angel’s job to protect the NATO soldier from the Afghan soldier whom it is the NATO soldier’s job to train.
That’s some catch, that Catch-22.