Tulsa Peace Fellowship

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The half-psychotic civilization in Heller’s Catch-22 dystopia: a review of the Hulu adaptation (2019)

This review is prompted by the recent tv adaptation of the novel, and is heavily colored by both the vagaries of my hazy remembrance of my last reading of the book and my viewing of film adaptation decades ago. At least one part of the Hulu streaming video adaptation (spring 2019) is seriously unfaithful to the original (1961), where it elides the difference between Yossarian and the Havermeyer-type; almost as serious, it also fails to draw out the similarities between Yossarian and Dunbar. Both Havermeyer and Dunbar are characters who are not included in the television re-telling, and arguably, the point of the novel is seriously distorted in the adaptation. A redeeming scene for the streaming video version, however, is the iconic imagery of the half-crazed military brass, on behalf of the half-psychotic civilization they represent in Heller’s dystopia on Pianosa, awarding a specious commendation and a promotion to the airman on the ground incapable of not flirting with psychosis and alienation, in remorse for the moral injuries he has sustained in the air, while at the controls of his bomber.
The miniseries never allows Yossarian to express any misgivings or guilt about the bombs he is dropping, whether on military or civilian targets, whether on defended or undefended targets, whether cities or not. But Joseph Heller made a point about undefended cities being bombarded by psychotic bombardiers, and the difference between Yossarian and Hevermeyer is supposed to be stark: “Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not.” (Heller, Catch-22, p. 29) More on Havermeyer:

Havermeyer was the best damned bombardier they had, but he flew straight and level all the way from the I.P to the target, and even far beyond the target until he saw the falling bombs strike ground and explode in a darting spurt of abrupt orange that flashed beneath the swirling pall of smoke and pulverized debris geysering up wildly in huge, rolling waves of gray and black. Havermeyer held mortal men rigid in six planes as steady and still as sitting ducks while he followed the bombs all the way down through the Plexiglas nose with deep interest and gave the German gunners below all the time they needed to set their sights and take their aim and pull their triggers or lanyards or switches or whatever the hell they did pull when they wanted to kill people they didn't know. (Heller, Catch-22, 3.57)

Presumably, this character stands in for the fascist Mussolini-types in the air, for whom, the “bomb pattern” has some aesthetic redeeming value. Mussolini himself is purported to have written (not quoted in the book or the tv adaptation):

I still remember the effect I produced on a small group of Galla tribesmen massed around a man in black clothes. I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the center, and the group opened up like a flowering rose. It was most entertaining.
~Vittorio Mussolini


Similarly, Heller has General Peckem say:

“A bomb pattern is a term I dreamed up just several weeks ago. It means nothing, but you'd be surprised at how rapidly it's caught on. Why, I've got all sorts of people convinced I think it's important for the bombs to explode close together and make a neat aerial photograph.” (Heller, Catch-22, p.325)


In his depraved desire to see the bombs drop and wreak their havoc, like Mussolini, or in order to please General Peckem with his absurd demand for “neat” aerial photographs, Havermeyer repeatedly puts the entire flight squadron at risk, rather than pull up and away from the flak as soon as possible, to preserve his men. The miniseries does a disservice to the book where it elides the difference between the bombardier who relishes the seriousness of his task like a fascist, and the bombardier like Yossarian who sabotages the bomb-runs as often as not, in order to save his skin, and shirk the responsibilities thrust upon him by the war machine. Far from placid or stoic in the face of the flak, Yossarian, temporarily in charge of flying the lead plane of the squadron for the bombing run, does everything he can to minimize risk, rather than be reckless with life and limb, like Havermeyer:

The men loved flying behind Yossarian, who used to come barreling in over the target from all directions and every height, climbing and diving and twisting and turning so steeply and sharply that it was all the pilots of the other five planes could do to stay in formation with him, leveling out only for the two or three seconds it took for the bombs to drop and then zooming off again with an aching howl of engines,..” (Heller, Catch-22, p.29)


Unfortunately, Havermeyer is one of the novel’s characters that are not included in the tv miniseries, and therefore, the viewer cannot make the contrast that the reader of the novel can. Instead of remorse or psychosis at the bomb controls, the miniseries repeatedly shows Yossarian finessing his bomb targeting mechanism at the bomb-sight., in the lead plane, inside the plexiglass nose cone of the B-25 known as the “hot house,” taking his task seriously of dropping bombs on targets, when Yossarian is not supposed to care, according to Heller! The point in the novel, as opposed to the miniseries, is to drop the bombs willy-nilly, as soon as possible, and get the hell out of the conflict zone, regardless of any effectiveness on the battlefield, regardless of any purported aerial support for troops on the ground, and preferably, with a minimal of innocent civilian lives on the ground dying because of the aerial effort. Instead, the miniseries makes it out that Yossarian somehow cares about being a damned bombardier, and that he’s callous about the destruction he’s causing below. The miniseries does do some justice to the absurdity and contrariwise nature of Yossarian’s reluctant decision, on one occasion only, to turn around his plane to go back around at a missed target, exposing his plane’s crew to inordinate risk on the second try; in the novel, one could argue Yossarian was aping the behavior of the Havermeyer-type, but motivation is somewhat lacking in the adaptation. To turn around and expose life and limb once again for the sake of a target below is absolutely contrary to the character’s main motivation –-to limit his exposure to risk and preserve self, in direct contravention of superiors’ orders to get himself killed in the air and become a statistic of warfare. Despite this aberration in Yossarian’s conduct, overall Heller’s point is that dropping bombs from the air is not a sane endeavor, rather it’s a psychotic one.

Apparently, in real life, Heller’s own air-wing was ordered to bombard at least one city, far off Sofia, Bulgaria (although Heller had not arrived in the war theater by then), as well as at least one small town, on the Italian-French border, namely Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, in Northwest Italy near the French border. For Sofia:

During the Second World War, Bulgaria declared war on the US and UK on 13 December 1941 and in late 1943 and early 1944 the US and UK Air forces conducted bombings over Sofia. As a consequence of the bombings around 2000 people were killed and thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged including the Capital Library and thousands of books. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofia#Modern_and_contemporary_history [date accessed 27 march 2019]


As to the bombing run on the defenseless Pont-Saint-Martin, ostensibly part of the air support for Operation Dragoon (the Allied landing on the Mediterranean):

“Bomber 8K had performed a bizarre maneuver while in formation that caused the bombs to go astray. The move was very risky given the tightness of the formation during the bomb run. In his report following the mission the pilot justified the move by saying that he was executing an evasive maneuver. This was quite unlikely considering that the only anti-aircraft gun protecting Ponte San Martino was a single machine gun that did not fire a single shot that day. Joseph Heller, who, as bombardier flew on this mission ... speculated that the pilot dropped his bombs wide for purely humanitarian reasons. [In his novel, Heller writes:] “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-marshal 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.” [Heller, Catch-22, p. 330] Although some of the bombs of aircraft 8K had fallen off-target, the loads of the other 15 planes landed in the town in a tight pattern and with deadly accuracy. They made their turn off the bomb run and retraced their route back to Corsica [=Pianosa, in the novel, Catch-22]”
source: http://www.dansetzer.us/Settimo.pdf [date accessed 27 May 2019]

Dunbar –-another character who fails to make the cut in the tv miniseries, and again, preventing the viewer to measure Yossarian against the alternative shirkers in the squadron-- was willing to risk court martial, rather than drop bombs on civilians; in comparison, Yossarian appears a coward, fearful of being court martialled for failing to follow orders-–he’s not a complete shirker like Corporal Schweik in that other famous antiwar novel of the 20th century. Yossarian will fall in line, to avoid the shame of being accused of “dereliction of duty.” Indeed, by the end of the novel, Capt. Yossarian has flown 70 combat missions for his country (the author himself had flown 60 missions), and the credibility of the novel’s protagonist suffers as a result, with every bomb run completed. Does his complicity with the war-machine make him more or less of an absurdist hero? Of course, a court martial for such an offense as Dunbar’s could, theoretically, have carried a death sentence (Dunbar is “disappeared” by the army, ominously, in the novel), so it is only consequent that Yossarian would want to avoid such a trial, as self-preservation is his first priority –-even at the expense of innocents’ lives on the ground, subject to his bombing. For the duration of his 70 missions, Yossarian is what R.D. Laing might have described, in 1960s counterculture lingo, “A half-crazed creature, more or less adjusted to a mad world.” (R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, p.50). Perhaps Yossarian is too sane by half, or perhaps he’s maladjusted just enough not to be cowardly, in the air with the flak bursting around his bomber’s path.

"...the perfectly adjusted bomber pilot may be a greater threat to species survival than the hospitalized schizophrenic deluded that the bomb is inside him."
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience.


This means it is Dunbar’s behavior that is worth emulating, shirking his duty in the air to avoid psychosis, rather than Yossarian’s, with his triangulating between self-interest and duty to country or cause, as he releases the ordinance from the air and slips into madness.

From an ideal vantage point on the ground, a formation of planes may be observed in the air. One plane may be out of formation. But the whole formation may be off course. The plane that is 'out of formation' may be abnormal, bad or 'mad,' from the point of view of the formation. But the formation itself may be bad or mad from the point of view of the ideal observer. … It is of fundamental importance not to make the positivist mistake of assuming that, because a group are 'in formation,' this means they are necessarily 'on course.'
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience.


Dunbar is far better off for having strayed out of formation on his bombing run, and for not having dropped his bombs on civilians, thereby not injuring his psyche, and not being forced into a ‘splitting’ of his personality “in uniform” and “out of uniform.” To maintain some semblance of sanity on base, Yossarian is forced to strip down and walk around naked, after the Snowden episode.

As to the absurdity of the raid on Ponte San Marino/Pont-Saint-Martin, the controversy continues to roil today. According to one source, “the Allied Command confused Ponte Canavese with Ponte San Martino and bombed the wrong town.” (source: http://www.dansetzer.us/Settimo.pdf) And contrary to the novel or the miniseries adaptation, the two bridges in fact remained standing after the aerial bombardment; it was the old section of town (Marchetto) that bore the brunt of the bombardment, not the military target. Hence, the motivation to provide Yossarian with a commendation and a promotion are in fact pure fiction, as much as the episode was based on a historical event: Heller himself did not hit his target. Even worse, according to the historical record: “Of the 130 people who died that day approximately 40 were children.“ (ibid.)

Why do we celebrate this author at all? As literature, film or streaming video that poignantly tells the story of a bombardier, Catch-22 begs the question: What if the bombs happily let loose on unsuspecting earth below were not conventional weapons, of the kind Yossarian drops, but atomic, nuclear or thermonuclear weapons? The species-wide significance of the bombardier’s state of mind is made all the clearer when that bombardier –or, by extension, the flight steward of an ICBM in the silo in the ground, or the weapons specialist on board a nuclear-armed submarine-- has species-ending weapons at their fingertips. As R.D. Laing put it, in 1967: “We are not able even to think adequately about the behaviour that is at the annihilating edge. … It is quite certain that unless we can regulate our behaviour much more satisfactorily than at present, then we are going to exterminate ourselves.” (R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, p.26). As literature, Catch-22 gives us some glimpse of that “annihilating edge” of normal, sanctioned behavior, and the insanity that it represents. “Only by the most outrageous violation of ourselves have we achieved our capacity to live in relative adjustment to a civilization apparently driven to its own destruction.” (Laing, ibid., p.64) Yossarian’s poorly-regulated behaviour, and that of every air crew with which he saddles up, uses too limited a horizon to frame the significance of his being an appendage to a machine capable of delivering weapons that the rest of the world deems to be mad: Perhaps his 70-odd flirtations with death are evidence for Yossarian’s deathwish, a depraved wish which in turn is the inner reflection of a self-exterminating civilization that has alienated Yossarian from his humanity, and trained him (or the author Heller) to be proud of his technical mastery of his bomb-sight. Even as he slips down the cramped passageway into the straightjacket of his forward bombing position, he will never find his consciousness looking down the bomb-sight., although he may meet his maker in the “ack-ack” of the skies and become a ‘hero’.

In comparison, the alienation of Dunbar from the alienation of the war machine would have a world-saving significance, his dereliction of duty providing “a sociobiological function that [the military] have not recognized.” (Laing, ibid. p.99) Heller does not outright kill off Dunbar; this alter-ego of Yossarian is merely “disappeared”, that is, disappeared from the horizon of Yossarian’s field of vision because he is meanwhile too focused on the narrowed field of his bomb-sight. The wonder is not with the Yossarians of the world, complicit with their inhumane orders and living in uniform-as-straightjacket, but with the Dunbars, the renegade soldiers and war resisters, such as “the man who saved the world,” namely, Stanislav Petrov, a former lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces who prevented the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident from leading to nuclear holocaust, or with Vasily Arkhipov, a Soviet Naval officer who refused to launch a nuclear torpedo during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, also avoiding nuclear Armageddon.

Are there any American ex-soldiers, not in fiction but in life, who would compare to a Yossarian or a Dunbar? Although nothing so grand as a nuclear peacemaker, the case of Bowe Bergdahl bears considering, when seeking parallels between life and fiction. His story is re-told in American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the Tragedy of U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan (2019). The author of that account, Mike Farrell, makes Bergdahl –who made the decision one day to abandon his base in a foreign theater of war, to go AWOL, or to disappear-- an allegory for U.S. civilized madness. The mental state of the ex-soldier and the occupying power in Afghanistan are summed up in this book review, in the Washington Post:

Delusion factors heavily into Bergdahl’s understanding of his actions. At his court-martial, his defense team diagnosed him as schizotypal. Unlike schizophrenics, schizotypal patients don’t suffer from complete breaks with reality but often become lost in their own fantasies. If Bergdahl suffered the delusion of believing he could become a savior by solving a crisis of his own making, the case is artfully made in “American Cipher” that America itself is a schizotypal, that we became lost in our own fantasies for Afghanistan, in which we could deliver the Afghan people from a crisis we created.
Source: “In Afghanistan, delusions of a soldier — and an army” by Elliot Ackerman, April 11, 2019, available online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/in-afghanstan-delusions-of-a...


According to that book review, Bergdahl, a conscience-driven whistle-blower who leaves his weapon behind at his small forward outpost to become a deserter, is now “the most iconic figure of the war in Afghanistan.” But the society that created him would like simultaneously both to call him half-crazed and hold him responsible for his actions, even if he happened to be right. And this is why R.D. Laing is a good lens for approaching Yossarian/Bergdahl, because he writes,

“There is no such "condition" as "schizophrenia," but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event. (R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 121)



Quotes Tony Liked

“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.


'I'm cold,' Snowden said. 'I'm cold.”


― Joseph Heller, Catch 22

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