Tag Archives: war

Book Review: Catch-22

As a reader who tries to roam far and wide on the literary landscape, I’d like to think I know craziness when I see it. And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is crazy.

I’ve tried to write a detailed and semi-coherent plot summary. And I’ve failed to write a detailed and semi- coherent plot summary. So I won’t try anymore. Catch-22 is all over the place. Norman Mailer dubbed it “the rock and roll of novels,” and if by that he means that there is little discernible flow or structure to it, then I agree – rock and roll just about says it.

This lack of narrative flow would usually be a turn-off for me, but Catch-22 is an exception. I would even argue that lack of flow is part of what makes the novel as potent and memorable as it is.

They say war is hell, but according to Catch-22, it is also absurdity. Chaotic, vain, bloodletting absurdity. In keeping with this theme, Heller opts for a storytelling approach that is less-than-tidy; that is, in fact, the opposite of tidy. Just like war itself.

The novel is set in World War II-era Italy, and centers around a young bombardier named Yossarian, who happens to be furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His worst enemy, though, is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Oh, and there’s a catch… did I mention a catch?

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause in Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. (p. 46)

Confused yet? Good. To couch the Catch in less mind-boggling terms: a man is insane if he willingly flies combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore required to fly. Saavy?

Catch-22 is a satire, and a funny one at that. But no amount of humor can disguise the fact that it’s also a very grim, cynical, and sad piece of work. Heller doesn’t go for the subtle approach, either – his tool of choice is less the scalpel than the cricket bat, and war is his pinata.

A pacifist I am not, but I did appreciate reading this book. It gave me a different perspective to consider, and for that, I am always grateful. I even found myself in agreement with some of Heller’s criticisms (which surprised me). Having said that, it seemed to me that in certain respects, Heller is so over-the-top as to be unfair.

In the afterword of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden observes that in the three most notable modern literary war novels (Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow), World War II, the great triumph of freedom over totalitarianism,

becomes a sensible enterprise only to malevolent, invisible, powerful interests behind the scenes. Soldiers were meaningless because modern war itself was so terrible and costly that no cause or victory could justify it.

And of course, “when war is madness, soldiers can only be stooges, sadists, victims, or lunatics.” Those four types are, indeed, the only types you’ll find in Catch-22.

But is not this a rather lopsided way of looking at things? Am I really to believe that war is ever and only madness, and that those who fight are ever and only insane? Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it hard to reconcile such a picture with the one in, say, Ambrose’s Band of Brothers.

I’m not denying that there is an element of madness to warfare, because there is. But that’s not the whole story. As Bowden puts it,

Perfectly decent, honorable people are driven to war for very sane reasons. So long as one group of men on this planet would take what they want or impose their will by force, civilized people will organize to defend themselves and defeat them. Another way of saying that is, evil exists. So long as men are both good and evil, inside themselves and in their actions in the world, there will be conflict. And where there are evil forces at work in the world… good men and women will step forward to fight.

Soldiers make mistakes. They get scared. Sometimes they become tragically confused, shoot at the wrong people, and get injured and killed. We may even be driven to question the wisdom of their leaders. But along with these mistakes and questions, we shouldn’t lose sight of “the undeniable nobility of military service.” Attributing all war and all soldiering to insanity (or worse) is unfair at best; brazenly deceitful at worst.

By all means, read Catch-22. It’s a pivotal work, and one which deserves consideration regardless of one’s politics. Just remember there’s another catch, besides the Catch – just remember it’s not the whole story.

Book Review: The Things They Carried

In all honesty, I’m not sure know how this book escaped my notice for so long. But it did. Somehow. I first ran across it several weeks ago, at Costco (of all places). Even though I didn’t know quite what to expect, I picked up a copy… and it turned out to be one of the finest war books I’ve ever read.

With that in mind, I find myself in a difficult place. A reviewer for the Dallas Morning News sums it up perfectly: “In trying to review a book as precious as The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, there is a nightmare fear of saying the wrong thing – of not getting the book’s wonder across to you fairly – and of sounding merely zealous, fanatical, and hence to be dismissed. If I can’t get you to go out and buy this book, then I’ve failed you.”

No pressure, right?

A finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, The Things They Carried is not a novel, nor a memoir, nor a short story collection: it is, instead, an exquisite combination of all three. Through this unique but effective merging of fact and fiction, the author paints a picture of his life (and the lives of his fellow soldiers) before, during, and after the Vietnam war. And what a picture it is.

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. (p. 76)

O’Brien’s book is less a straight-up battle account and more a meditation – a meditation on courage and cowardice, life and death, imagination, memory, the nature of war, and ultimately, the power and potency of storytelling. Like a fabric, it’s an interweaving of the beautiful with the obscene, the graphic with the poignant, the disturbing with the surreal.

And in the end, the thread that holds it all together is the writing: raw and honest and vivid and forceful and poetic. Spilling over with emotion, without a hint of sentimentality. O’Brien sets pen to paper with a complete mastery of language, and the result will haunt your mind, pierce your heart, and pummel your gut. It will even, on occasion, make you laugh. Just consider this passage, one of the most creative pieces of descriptive writing I’ve ever come across:

For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute, and then multiplying by maybe. (p. 86)

In my opinion, The Things They Carried is not only a must-read for lovers of war literature, but also for those (like myself) who wish to study the art of writing.

At one point, O’Brien pauses to remind the reader that “a true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” This book does that. Violence is graphic. Language is harsh. And some of the imagery is singularly nightmarish. So if there’s one warning I would give to potential readers, it would be this: prepare to be jarred out of your comfort zone.

But it’s worth it. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Book Review: Outlaw Platoon

At age twenty-four, U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell was given command of a forty-man elite infantry platoon – a unit that came to be known as Outlaws. Their job: find, fix, and destroy the Pakistan-based insurgents along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier.

It was assumed they they would be facing a scrappy band of undisciplined civilian fighters. Reality, however, was much different. In May 2006, what began as a routine mountain patrol ended in a bloody ambush that nearly overwhelmed the platoon. From then on, the situation was clear: the Outlaws were dealing with the most professional light infantry force the U.S. Army had encountered since the end of World War II.

Outlaw Platoon is a story of heroes, renegades, infidels, and the brotherhood of war in Afghanistan – a combat memoir on par with Marcus Lutrell’s Lone Survivor. Parnell’s detailed account of sixteen months of mountain warfare is as mentally and emotionally demanding as it is suspenseful. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself struggling to wrap your head (and stomach) around what these guys go through on the front lines.

Parnell is a consistently superb storyteller. As a fellow soldier noted, “He brings you into his thoughts of success, loss, perceived failure, and all emotions that troops process during and after heavy combat operations.”

The story of his platoon is resurrected with guts and bravado-less honesty and it’s about as close as you get to the real deal: a fascinating depiction of courage, camaraderie, and leadership laced with mortar fire and the ripping spray of .50 machine guns.

Gunfire has its own language. Suppressing fire, the purpose of which is to pin you down, sounds undisciplined; it wanders back and forth over you without much aim. It is searching and random and somehow doesn’t seem as deadly.

Accurate, aimed fire is a different story. It has a purpose to it. You know as soon as you hear it that somebody has you in their sights. The shots come with a rapid-fire focus that underscores their murderous intent. Somebody is shooting at you. It becomes intimate and fear inducing…

The enemy machine gunners hammered at us with accurate bursts. As their bullets struck home, they spoke to us infantrymen as clearly as if they had used our native language. Message received: these were not amateurs in the hills on our flanks. (p. 77)

It’s quickly apparent how deeply Parnell cares for the men he’s writing about, and over the course of the story, we come to care about them, too – from Staff Segeant Phillip Baldwin, who sacrificed everything after 9/11 to serve his country; to Specialist Robert Pinholt, a soldier with “the mind of a warrior and the heart of an economist.” Heroes. And the cost of battle wasn’t cheap for them. Over 80 percent were wounded in action, putting their casualty rate among the highest since Gettysburg. Some of them never made it home.

Like the men whose story it records, this book is rough. And I mean rough. The brutality of modern war comes through clearly in Parnell’s narrative and no punches are pulled in describing the atrocities perpetrated by the insurgents. Swearing is frequent, especially during the final half of the book, and it’s usually R-rated fare (including a handful of crude sexual references). Such content issues are par the course for war books, but you should know what you’re getting into. My age recommendation would be 17 and up. At least.

For those old enough to handle it, Outlaw Platoon is a must-read – especially if you’re even remotely interested in stellar combat memoirs. To quote Steven Pressfield, “Sean Parnell reaches past the band-of-brothers theme to a place of brutal self-awareness… he never flinches from a fight, nor the hard questions of a messy war.”

For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today

“In wartime, sinners often rise to remarkable levels of sacrifice for causes that cannot compare with Christ. The greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing it with a kind, serious pleasure that makes Christ look like the Treasure He is.

But oh, what bold risks and daring sacrifices these lesser causes have inspired! On February 19, 1945, the battle for Iwo Jima began. It was a barren, eight-mile-sqiare island six hundred miles south of Tokyo, guarded by 22,000 Japanese prepared to fight to the death (which they did). They were protecting two air strips that America needed in the strategic effort to contain Japanese aggression after Pearl Harbor and preserve the liberty that America cherished. It was a high cause, and the courageous sacrifice was stunning.

The hard statistics show the sacrifice made by Colonel Johnson’s 2nd Battalion: 1,400 boys [many still teenagers] landed on D-Day; 288 replacements were provided as the battle went on, a total of 1,688. Of these, 1,511 had been killed or wounded. Only 177 walked off the island. and of the final 177, 91 had been wounded at least once and returned to battle.

It had taken twenty-two crowded transports to bring the 5th Division to the island. The survivors fit comfortably into eight departing ships.

The american boys had killed about 21,000 Japanese, but suffered more than 26,000 casualties doing so. This would be the only battle in the Pacific where the invaders suffered higher causalities than the defenders. The Marines fought in World War II for forty-three months. Yet in one month on Iwo Jima, one third of their total deaths occurred. They left behind the Pacific’s largest cemeteries: nearly 6,800 graves in all; mounds with their crosses and stars. Thousands of families would not have the solace of a body to bid farewell: just the abstract information that the Marine had ‘died in the performance of his duty’ and was buried in a plot, aligned in a row with numbers on his grave. Mike lay in Plot 3, Row 5, Grave 694; Harlon in Plot 4, Row 6, Grave 912; Franklin in Plot 8, Row 7, Grave 2189.

When I think of Mike, Harlon, and Franklin there, I think of the message someone had chiseled outside the cemetery:

When you go home,
Tell them for us and say,
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

I am deeply moved by the courage and carnage on Iwo Jima. As I read the pages of this history, everything in me cries out, ‘O Lord, don’t let me waste my life!’ Let me come to the end – whether soon or late – and be able to say to a family, a church, and the unreached peoples of the earth, “For your tomorrow, I gave my today. Not just for your tomorrow on earth, but for the countless tomorrows of your ever-increasing gladness in God.” The closer I looked at the individual soldiers in this World War II history, the more I felt a passion that my life would count, and that I would be able to die well.

As a rainy morning wore into afternoon and the fighting bogged down, the Marines continued to take casualties. Often it was the corpsmen [medics] themselves who died as they tried to preserve life. William Hoops of Chatanooga was crouching beside a medic named Kelly, who put his head above a protective ridge and placed binoculars to his eyes – just for an instant – to spot a sniper who was peppering his area. In that instant the sniper shot him through the Adam’s apple. Hoopes, a pharmacist mate himself, struggled fanatically to save his friend. “I took my forceps and reached into his neck to grab the artery and pinch it off,” Hoopes recalled. “His blood was spurting. He had no speech but his eyes were on me. He knew I was trying to save his life. I tried everything in the world. I couldn’t do it. I tried. The blood was so slippery. I couldn’t get the artery. I was trying so hard. And all the while he just looked at me. He looked directly into my face. The last thing he did as the blood spurts became less and less was to pat me on the arm as if to say, ‘That’s all right.’ Then he died. (Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers, pp. 188, 123-125)

In this heart-breaking moment I want to be Hoopes and I want to be Kelly. I want to be able to say to suffering and perishing people, ‘I tried everything in the world… I was trying so hard.’ And then I want to be able to say to those around me when I die, ‘It’s all right. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.'”

~ John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Ch. 7, pp. 123-125)