Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

War and the Pity of War: Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

War and the Pity of War: Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Article excerpt

War has been a recurrent theme in literary works both in the West and the East since time immemorial. Homer's Iliad and Vyasa's The Mahabharata are outstanding examples. The magnitude of destruction caused by modern warfare is unprecedented. In the 20th century, war poets in England and novelists like Stephen Crane in the US attempted to present the madness of war. But it is Joseph Heller, himself a participant in the mindless war, who evokes the utter madness of war waged by ruthless politicians with the help of capricious self- seeking military bureaucrats. In this paper, an attempt is made to show the sane effort of Yessamanto escape from the madness of war waged to pursue a causeless cause and survive, when dying is utterly meaningless.

Fear teaches men nothing. If men enjoy killing, no memory of war will deter them. Nor will the knowledge of the material damage wrought by war. Only in infinitesimal degree do men's actions spring from rational considerations. One can be thoroughly convinced that an action is absurd and still delight in it.

- Hermann Hesse

Since time immemorial war has been a literary theme on the grand scale. Homer's Iliad, which is known as the "world's greatest war novel," continues to enthrall readers today as much as Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War remains an object of interest for the contemporary citizen who can see in it reflections of many of the great polemical debates of our own times. Similarly, the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata delights both the elite and the common man through its depiction of the tales of heroism and the political and moral issues it raises. In the 19th century, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Tolstoy's War and Peace present unforgettable vision of mankind caught in the vortex of battles and conflicts. If in the 20th century war provided writers with tropes and imaginative fictions of enormous vitality, their influence in the current era has been no less pervasive.

In the context of America, war as a literary theme "acts out the great tragic vision of our time, the prime historical peripeteia and narrative" (Walsh, 1982, p. 3). The great avalanche of war novels in America began sometime after 1890 with the publication of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895). The ever-growing interest of American writers in war themes seems inexplicable because ever since the Civil War came to an end in 1865 (the destruction of the twin towers notwithstanding), "not a single shell has exploded on American soil; not one bomb dropped from a hostile plane has destroyed a single home; America has not groaned under the heel of one foreign soldier's boot. Even the tempest of the two World Wars which ravaged Europe did not touch her territory. There were no ruined cities, no blood-soaked fields, no Auschwitz or Dachau; no countless war dead, no casualties among old people, women and children" (Koreneva, 1976, p. 48).

Despite the American soil being free of the disasters of war, countless writers in the 20th century have found war and the politics of war as appropriate raw material for exploring fundamental problems related to the life of an average American caught in the hands of forces beyond his control. The present paper explores and examines Catch-22 to show how Joseph Heller reflects on the futility of fighting and dying for a causeless cause that tends to make soldiers pawns in the hands of power-drunk politicians and ambitious military generals.

Joseph Heller won immediate recognition with the publication of his first novel, Catch-22 in 1961. By 1975, this anti-war novel, which had been made into a movie in 1970, had sold over six million copies, becoming thereby an unparalleled publishing phenomenon and a cult book all over the world. Emerging out of Heller's experience as a wing bombardier in the Second World War of the Twelfth Air Force stationed at Corsica, where he flew 60 missions, Catch-22 continues to be regarded as a scathing indictment of the big business of modern warfare. …

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