Tag Archives: WWII

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.

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)

Book Review: Band of Brothers

In Band of Brothers, veteran historian Stephen Ambrose tells the story of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne – one of the most successful light infantry units to fight in the European theater during World War II.

Formed in July 1942 and inactivated in November 1945, “Easy” Company saw its first action when it parachuted into France on the morning of D-Day. It participated in “Operation Market Garden” in Holland, and went on to play a crucial role in the Battle of the Bulge by holding the perimeter around Bastogne. It was also the first company to reach Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

Over the course of its 3-year service in the field, Easy took 150 percent casualities. It was a company that considered the Purple Heart not a decoration, but a badge of office.

With assiduous attention to detail and a compelling style, Ambrose traces the fortunes of the men in this brave unit who fought, bled, went hungry, froze, and died – for their country and for each other. We follow them through training and into combat and onto victory. To quote another reviewer, “In these pages, the reader can vicariously walk with the men of E Company, suffer and laugh with them.” And as we read, we can’t help but fiercely admire them.

Ambrose writes of Easy,

The company had been born in July 1942 at Toccoa. Its existence essentially came to an end almost exactly three years later… In those three years the men had seen more, endured more, and contributed more than most men can see, endure, or contribute in a lifetime.

They thought the Army was boring, unfeeling, and chicken, and they hated it. They found combat to be ugliness, destruction, and death, and hated it. Anything was better than the blood and carnage, the grime and filth, the impossible demands made on the body – anything, that is, except letting down their buddies.

They also found in combat the closest brotherhood they ever knew. They found selflessness. They found they could love the other guy in their foxhole more than themselves. They found that in war, men who loved life would give their lives for them.

The sacrificial actions of these men – and of soldiers in general – reflect the very essence of John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Such love is rare. Amid the rampant egotism of modern culture, it is even rarer.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is how Ambrose gives the reader the big picture without ever compromising the small one. The account he shares is a very personal one, showcasing ordinary guys in extraordinary situations. We never lose sight of the fact that, however big the war was, the men who fought it were real men – not just pieces on a chess board being moved from place to place by generals and statesmen.

Suffice it to say, I loved Band of Brothers. And when I tell you to go read this book, I mean, go read this book. Don’t just add it to your wish list and hope you’ll get to it sometime: seek it out and get your hands on a copy the next time you’re in the library or the bookstore.

It’s a story of honor and sacrifice and courage in the face of unspeakable odds. It’s a story of great men, of heroes. It’s a story simply too powerful to be missed.

Now go read it.

Book Review: To End All Wars

Gripping. Poignant. Inspiring. Thought-provoking. Every one of these words could be used to describe Ernest Gordon’s To End All Wars. And yet, strangely enough, none of them would fully do it justice. It is a war story, to be sure: but it’s unlike any other war story I’ve ever read.

Originally published in 1963 under the title Through the Valley of the Kwai, this book is Ernest Gordon’s first-hand account of the time he spent in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.  A native of Scotland, and an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Gordon was captured by Japanese troops at the age of twenty-four and forced, along with other Bitish prisoners, to build the infamous “Death Railway” – a 285 mile long railway stretching between Thailand and Burma. Faced by the brutality of the guards and the squalor of the prison camp, Gordon and many others gave themselves over to anger, bitterness, and despair.

But then something unexpected happened. Inspired by Dusty Miller, a fellow inmate and ardent Christian, Gordon began reading the Bible anew, and came to a saving knowledge of Christ as a result (when the war was over, he went on to become a Presbyterian minister). He organized a regular Bible study so he and the other prisoners could meet to discuss what they had read in God’s Word. A change both dramatic and profound was wrought in the attitude of the men.

Gordon writes,

As we became more aware of our responsibility to God the Father, we realized that we were put into this world not to be served but to serve. This truth touched and influenced many of us to some degree – even some of those who shunned any religious quest. Men began to smile – even to laugh – and sing.

The resurgence of life increased. It grew and leavened the camp, expressing itself in men’s increased concern for their neighbors.

But these men also faced another challenge, and one that was much more difficult: that of loving and forgiving their enemies. The Japanese prison guards were savage men who enacted countless cruelties on their prisoners without a second thought. To demonstrate love towards them exceeded the bounds of all human reason.

But since when was human reason the scale by which Christians measure their actions?

Through God’s grace, Gordon and the others found the strength to return good for evil. One particularly striking example of this occurs when the prisoners administer aid to wounded Japanese soldiers:

They were in a shocking state; I had never seen men filthier. Their uniforms were encrusted with mud, blood, and excrement. Their wounds, sorely enflamed and full of pus, crawled with maggots…

We understood now why the Japanese were so cruel to their prisoners. If they didn’t care a tinker’s damn for their own, why should they care for us?

The wounded men looked at us forlornly as they sat with their heads resting against the carriages waiting fatalistically for death…

Without a word, most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their ration and a rag or two, and, with water canteens in their hands went over to the Japanese train to help them. Our guards tried to prevent us… but we ignored them and knelt by the side of the enemy to give them food and water, to clean and bind up their wounds, to smile and say a kind word. Grateful cries of “Aragatto!” (“Thank you!”) followed us when we left…

We had experienced a moment of grace, there in those blood-stained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey His command, “Thou shalt love”.

Powerful stuff, indeed.

The story behind this book is one which inspired two major motion pictures, the Academy Award-winning The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) and David Cunningham’s more recent adaption To End All Wars (2001). The former, however, is grossly inaccurate and touts the myth that the POWs gleefully assisted in the building of the railway in order to demonstrate British superiority; in reality, the POWs did all they could to sabotage the construction. The latter film remains primarily true to the book, but it’s underscored by a more pacifistic message and the Christian themes are somewhat watered-down.

If you do read this book – and I highly recommend you do – be warned that it contains some graphic subject matter. It is a POW story after all, and Gordon doesn’t pull any punches in describing the horrors endured by the inmates of the prison camps.

In conclusion, the description on the back cover of the book states that To End All Wars is an “example of the triumph of the human spirit against all odds”. But human spirit has nothing to do with it. Rather, Gordon’s story is a testament to the redemptive power of God’s grace in the most horrific of circumstances.