Snowden’s Secret

In the end it’s hard to tell whether it’s Snowden’s or Nately’s death that finally inspires Yossarian to defy Cathcart, but it’s certainly Snowden’s death that haunts the novel:

There were too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There were bartenders, bricklayers and bus conductors all over the world who wanted him dead, landlords and tenants, traitors and patriots, lynchers, leeches and lackeys, and they were all out to bump him off. That was the secret Snowden had spilled to him on the mission to Avignon-they were out to get him; and Snowden had spilled it all over the back of the plane.

There’s no doubt that death haunts Yossarian, but why wouldn’t it when dying is the only way out of war. Send people out on enough missions, and they’re bound to die. Fortunately, though, Snowden reveals more to Yossarian than just the inevitability of death:

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

It is the human spirit, not mere existence, which gives life meaning.
Of course, despite this earlier realization, Yossarian still seems to accept Cathcart’s proposal:

“You see Yossarian, we’re going to put you on easy street. We’re going to promote you to major even give you another medal. Captain Flume is already working on glowing press releases describing your valor over Ferrara, your deep and abiding loyalty to your outfit and your consummate dedication to duty. Those phrases are all actual quotations, by the way. We’re going to glorify you and send you home a hero, recalled by the Pentagon for morale and public relations purposes. You’ll live like a millionaire. Everyone will lionize you. You’ll have parades in your honor and make speeches to raise money for war bonds. A whole world of luxury awaits you once you become our pal. Isn’t it lovely?

Now, most of us, despite our distaste for it, would probably accept this offer too because, frankly, it would allow us to walk away alive and still remain citizens of our country. Certainly that’s why Yossarian accepts it until:

Yossarian waved goodbye fondly to his new pals and sauntered out onto the balcony corridor, almost bursting into song the instant he was alone. He was home free; he had pulled it off; his act of rebellion had succeeded;he was safe, and he had nothing to be ashamed of to anyone. He started to the staircase with a jaunty and exhilarated air. When Yossarian returned the salute, the private in green fatigues turned suddenly into Nately’s whore and lunged at him murderously with a bone-handled kitchen knife that caught him in the side below his upraised arm.

In this topsy-turvy world, Nately’s whore, strangely enough, seems to represent Yossarian’s conscience. Every time he gets comfortable with a compromise, Nately’s whore shows up to haunt him, which, of course, also explains why he walks backward all the time. Rather than returning to the states when he could, Nately stayed and died because he loved the whore who seemed to disdain him until his death. By selling out to Catchcart and his friends, Yossarian would be betraying not only Nately but all those other pilots who secretly wished him well in his attempts to stand up to Cathcart.
Of course, in the end, it may well be that it was actually the news that Orr had reached Sweden that inspired Yossarian to turn down Cathcart and flee to Sweden instead. Once he found it really was possible to escape Catch-22, Yossarian seems willing to stand up to Cathcart and Milo because:

When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent moral impulse and every human tragedy.

Despite what most of my ex-students thought, despite what the conservative hawks would have you believe , Yossarian, like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a true hero (if a fictional character can ever be a “true” anything) because he stands up for what he knows is right even though he knows he cannot win. In a postmodern world, perhaps that is all we can hope for. If we settle for less, we are victims of the most insidious Catch-22 of all, the Catch- 22 that exists in our minds.

Milo’s Ultimate Betrayal

Considering that Yossarian is the only person that Milo trusts and his only “friend” throughout the story, it always seemed shocking to me how willing Milo is to betray Yossarian to Cathcart in order to earn combat medals:

Yossarian?” “A tremor of deep concern passed over Milo’s simple, homespun features, and he scratched the corner of his reddish-brown mustache thoughtfully.
“Yeah, Yossarian. I hear he’s going around saying that he’s finished his missions and the wars over for him. Well, maybe he has finished his missions. But he hasn’t finished your missions, has he? Ha! Ha! Has he got a surprise coming to him!”
“Sir, Yossarian is a friend of mine,” Milo objected. “I’d hate to be responsible for doing anything that would put him back in combat. I owe a lot to Yossarian. Isn’t there any way we could make an exception of him?
“Oh, no, Milo.” Colonel Cathcart clucked sententiously, shocked by the suggestion. “We must never play favorites. We must always treat every man alike.”
“I’d give everything I own to Yossarian,” Milo persevered gamely in Yossarian’s behalf. “But since I don’t own everything, I cant give everything to him, can I? So he’ll just have to take his chances with the rest of the men, won’t he?”

It might be easier to understand Milo’s betrayal if he could make a profit on it, but apparently it is his personal ambition and not just greed that drives him. That does put Milo in the same camp as Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, clearly showing that greed, including the thirst for power is, the corrupting force in the novel.

Ultimately, it is Milo’s betrayal that drives Yossarian to go AWOL. Ironically, Milo complains that Yossarian is putting him in a bad position:

He was placing Milo in a very uncomfortable position, too. Yossarian nodded again. The men were starting to grumble. It wasn’t fair for Yossarian to think only of his own safety while men like Milo, Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, and ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen were willing to do everything they could to win the war. The men with seventy missions were starting to grumble because they had to fly eighty, and there was a danger some of them might put on guns and begin walking around backward, too. Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them


How unfortunate that Yossarian is making Milo uncomfortable. Of course, it’s Yossarian’s fault that morale is deteriorating. Talk about d”j” vu. Do you think that conservatives who criticize those opposing the Iraq war would understand the true meaning of the last line here, or would they read it literally? Let me guess. It’s surprising they even let us vote in such dangerous times.

When Yossarian discovers that the prostitutes have been driven out of their house by the M.P.’s, he finally suspects that Catch-22 doesn’t really exist except in the minds of its victims:

Yossarian left money in the old woman’s lap”it was odd how many wrongs leaving money seemed to right”and strode out of the apartment, cursing Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he knew there was no such thing, Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.

While leaving money may help to ameliorate wrongs, it really doesn’t resolve the problem, does it? More importantly, though, this seems to suggest that it’s not money, per se, that is the source of the problem. We see that greed destroys man’s values quite clearly Milo’s abandons Yossarian:

“Milo!” Yossarian yelled and bounded forward impulsively to intercept him. “Milo, you’ve got to help me.”
“Illegal tobacco,” Milo explained to him with a look of epileptic lust, struggling doggedly to get by. “Let me go. I’ve got to smuggle illegal tobacco.”
“Stay here and help me find her,” pleaded Yossarian. You can smuggle illegal tobacco tomorrow.”

This “epileptic lust” defeats even Milo’s best attempts to do the “right thing.” If he would abandon his best friend, how can we expect anything more from him?

Milo’s Judas-like betrayal directly leads into Yossarians dark vision of the “eternal city:”

Yossarian quickened his pace to get away, almost ran. The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been.
As if the stark poverty wasn’t enough, Yossarian also realizes that these victims of war, the most vulnerable of the population, continue to be exploited by those in authority:

Yossarian smiled wryly at the futile and ridiculous cry for aid, then saw with a start that the words were ambiguous, realized with alarm that they were not, perhaps, intended as a call for police but as a heroic warning from the grave by a doomed friend to everyone who was not a policeman with a club and a gun and a mob of other policemen with clubs and guns to back him up. “Help! Police!” The man had cried, and he could have been shouting about danger.

This Dark Night of the Soul, with its realistic, yet fantastic, portrayal of a city and country destroyed by war leads directly to Yossarian’s decision to finally stand up for what he believes in.

Try a Little Love

Obviously Yossarian isn’t the only character who realizes what Cathcart and Milo are doing, and he isn’t the only one who resists. Other characters try to resist in different ways. For instance, when ordered to drop bombs on the village of innocent Italians, Dunbar defies Cathcart’s orders:

Yossarian no longer gave a damn where his bombs fell, although he did not go as far as Dunbar, who dropped his bombs hundreds of yards past the village and would face a court-martial if it could ever be shown he had done it deliberately. Without a word even to Yossarian, Dunbar had washed his hands of the mission. The fall in the hospital had either shown him the light or scrambled his brains; it was impossible to say which.

Instead of directly defying Cathcart’s orders, he merely ignores them, a safer, though perhaps less effective way, of dealing with problems we’re afraid that we can’t overcome. I’ve been known to use the same technique with administrators who couldn’t see any possible way but their own. I’m afraid all of us have been guilty of this approach at least a few times in our lives. It is, after all, the path of least resistance.

The chaplain uses a similar approach to dealing with those he is afraid to defy:

The chaplain had sinned, and it was good. Common sense told him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins. On the other hand, everyone knew that sin was evil and that no good would come from evil. But he did feel good; he felt positively marvelous. Consequently, it followed logically that telling sins and defecting from duty could not be sins. The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it ; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

Of course when Yossarian, did precisely this earlier in the novel it seemed much funnier. Paraphrasing an earlier quote, this isn’t the kind of minister I don’t believe in . The minister I don’t believe in is a noble person who stands up for the truth and his principles, no matter how fantastic those beliefs may seem to those of us looking from a different perspective. I know I’ve tried this technique, too, probably more times than I realize, because rationalizations seem to work that way. After awhile they become so imbedded that we have trouble distinguishing them from the truth. Of course, that may be what makes them so damn dangerous.

I suspect that far too many of us deal with these problems idealisticaly as Major Danby does:

“I try not to think of that,” Major Danby admitted frankly. “I try to concentrate on only the big result and to forget that they are succeeding, too. I try to pretend that they are not significant.”
“That’s my trouble, you know,” Yossarian mused sympathetically, folding his arms. “Between me and every ideal I always find Scheisskopfs, Peckems, Korns and Cathcarts. And that sort of changes the ideal.
“You must try not to think of them,” Major Danby advised affirmatively. “And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.”

Well, that’s certainly me in a nutshell. As an INTP, I’m far more interested in the theoretical than the actual, anyway. Think the Republicans are gone, and it’s almost the same as having them gone, right? At least that way I don’t have to go around knocking on doors and reminding people to vote. It’s easier that way. Give the Democrats $100 and the problem is solved, at least theoretically. The trouble, of course, is that I keep seeing Bush on TV, and he’s still President.

Of course, before he makes his final decision, Yossarian does try various ways of avoiding confronting Milo and Cathcart. One of the pleasantest ways is having an affair with Nurse Duckett:

Nurse Sue Ann Duckett despised Aarfy, and that was another one of the numerous fetching traits about Nurse Duckett that Yossarian enjoyed. He enjoyed Nurse Sue Ann Duckett’s long white legs and supple, callipygous ass; he often neglected to remember that she was quite slim and fragile from the waist up and hurt her unintentionally in moments of passion when he hugged her too roughly. He loved her manner of sleepy acquiescence when they lay on the beach at dusk. He drew solace and sedation from her nearness. He had a crav- ing to touch her always, to remain always in physical communication. He liked to encircle her ankle loosely with his fingers as he played cards with Nately, Dunbar and Hungry Joe, to lightly and lovingly caress the downy skin of her fair, smooth thigh with the backs of his nails or, dreamily, sensuously, almost unconsciously, slide his proprietary, respectful hand up the shell-like ridge of her spine beneath the elastic strap of the top of the two-piece bathing suit she always wore to contain and cover her tiny, long-nippled breasts. He loved Nurse Duckett’s serene, flattered response, the sense of attachment to him she displayed proudly. HungryJoe had a craving to feel Nurse Duckett up, too, and was restrained more than once by Yossarian’s forbidding glower. Nurse Duckett flirted with Hungry Joe just to keep him in heat, and her round light-brown eyes glimmered with mischief every time Yossarian rapped her sharply with his elbow or fist to make her stop.

If you haven’t tried love as an escape from life’s harsh realities, you have my deepest sympathies. Unfortunately, there never were enough nurses to go around in Vietnam, and I sure as hell wasn’t willing to get my legs blown away to meet one. I’m sure there’s no better cure, but unfortunately, as shown by Nately’s dilemma, people like Milo and Cathcart can use that love to further entrap you:

For the first time in his life, Yossarian prayed. He got down on his knees and prayed to Nately not to volunteer to fly more than seventy missions after Chief White Halfoat did die of pneumonia in the hospital and Nately had applied for his job. But Nately just wouldn’t listen.

“I’ve got to fly more missions,” Nately insisted lamely with a crooked smile. “Otherwise they’ll send me home.”


“I don’t want to go home until I can take her back with me.”

“She means that much to you?”

Nately nodded dejectedly. “I might never see her again.”

“Then get yourself grounded,” Yossarian urged. “You’ve finished your missions and you don’t need the flight pay. Why don’t you ask for Chief White Halfoat’s job, if you can stand working for Captain Black?”

Nately shook his head, his cheeks darkening with shy and regretful mortification. “They won’t give it to me. I spoke to Colonel Korn, and he told me I’d have to fly more missions or be sent home.”

Of course, Natley’s love in the end leads directly to his death, offering further proof, if you really needed it, that even love can’t save you from the selfishness and greed driving our world.

One could conjecture, though, that Nately’s love, or at least his martyrdom for love, in the end does trump Milo’s and Cathcart’s greed, but it demands the sacrifice of more than Nately to do so.

I Know I’m Depressed

I suppose it’s the evil liberal in me, or perhaps the former WEA union member, but I know I wouldn’t love Catch-22 nearly as much if Milo Minderbinder wasn’t in it. Minderbinder, Mind-binder, M & M Enterprises, the perfect name for a modern God of Capitalism. It is capitalism, after all, that dominates western civilization and even manages to profit from war. Of course, Milo Minderbinder isn’t merely the God of Capitalism; he is the apotheosis of greed (which is a lot like saying he’s the God of Capitalism, isn’t it).

Milo’s rise from mess officer to God-like status is surprising and is revealed in the last half of the novel, though it’s never really clear how he rose to such elite status:

The weird, implausible reception for Milo began at the airfield, where civilian laborers who recognized him halted in their duties respectfully to gaze at him with full expressions of controlled exuberance and adulation. News of his arrival preceded him into the city, and the outskirts were already crowded with cheering citizens as they sped by in their small uncovered truck. Yossarian and Orr were mystified and mute and pressed close against Milo for security.

I suspect the reader is as shocked by Milo’s reception as Yossarian apparently is. One might even say Milo is the Steve Jobs of M&M Enterprises if it weren’t that he soon appears to be Bill Gates in his complete domination of business. Even Bill Gates may not equal Milo’s success:

He was ready to break Milo’s neck, but Milo was Vice-Shah of Oran and his person was sacred. Milo was not only the Vice-Shah of Oran, as it turned out, but also the Caliph of Baghdad, Imam of Damascus, and the Sheik of Araby. Milo was the corn god, the rain god and the rice god in backward regions where such crude gods were still worshiped by ignorant and superstitious people, and deep inside the jungles of Africa, he intimated with modesty, large graven images of his mustached face could be found overlooking primitive stone altars red with human blood. Everywhere they touched he was acclaimed with honor, and it was one triumphal ovation after another for him in city after city until they finally doubled back through the Middle East and reached Cairo.

It would be wrong to merely conclude that Heller is making fun of American capitalism. He’s not; he’s exposing the basic greed in the world that allows capitalism to thrive everywhere, not just in America. Everyone wants a piece of business.

Unfortunately, some of what happens here seemed all too real. I suspect that Heller was inspired to create Milo Minderbinder by the system used by supply sergeants in the Army. I was amazed that even in Vietnam supply sergeants had an underground organization that would allow them to get parts quicker if they had parts to trade for them. My god, man, this was war and you’d think that the quicker tanks were fixed the safer everyone would be. Apparently not, though, because the “good old boy network” that thrived stateside thrived in Vietnam, too.

Happily, Heller pushes his depiction of Milo right over the top, safely on the side of satire, when he has Milo’s company bomb both the Germans and the Americans:

Milo’s planes were a familiar sight. They had freedom of passage everywhere, and one day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent, and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions. Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridges, inasmuch as both governments had ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them, and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice.

Thank goodness the portrayal isn’t meant to be realistic. In fact, this portrayal of free enterprise seems totally absurd, unless we remember that American companies were accused of supplying Iraq with weapons in Desert Storm virtually up to the moment we attacked them. And, of course, we’ve sold weapons to the Israelis and the Arabs for years, even though they seem to be mainly intended for use against each other. I was a bit surprised when I was training at Armor School at Fort Knox to discover that we were training Arab tank officers, though, of course, we had trained Israeli officers in previous classes.

In what appears to be the ultimate betrayal, Milo even has M&M Enterprises bomb his own unit. Even Colonel Cathcart is outraged:

This time Milo had gone too far. Bombing his own men and planes was more than even the most phlegmatic observer could stomach, and it looked like the end for him.

Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. He could reimburse the government for all the people and property he had destroyed and still have enough money left over to continue buying Egyptian cotton. Everybody, of course, owned a share. And the sweetest part of the whole deal was that there was really no need to reimburse the government at all.
“In a democracy, the government is the people,” Milo explained. “We’re the people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman.”

Of course, Catch-22 is purely fictional, so there’s obviously no similarity to Sadam Hussein’s Catch-22: Americans gave him weapons of mass destruction to use against the Iranians, you know those dreaded chemical weapons, then we destroyed him because he “had weapons of mass destruction.” We knew he had weapons of mass destruction, and we knew that because we had sold them to him. What more proof could anyone demand?

If you complain that such actions are “crazy,’ and protest too loudly, you, too, may be watched and pronounced “crazy,” just as Yossarian was pronounced crazy by the Army psychiatrist:

“You’re immature. You’ve been unable to adjust to the idea of war.
“Yes, sir.”
“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”
“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”
“You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated, or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re a manic depressive!”

If you don’t feel precisely the way Yossarian does, I’m a little worried about YOU. It seems hard not to get depressed by what’s happening in society if you don’t think that the ultimate goal of society is to consume everything in sight, no matter what the consequences.

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