Grand Illusions

BY THE AGE OF THIRTEEN, bloodthirsty baby-boomer bookworm that I was, I was already well read in the literature of World War II, with particular concentration on accounts of POW-camp breakouts and the exploits of fighter pilots. (My father had served in the Army Air Forces.) So my eye was easily caught by the ad for a novel titled Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in the back of the paperback copy of Fail-Safe that I had just finished (I was big on nuclear war too). A guy with goggles and a flight helmet, with a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aloft behind him—what was not to like?

But when I got Catch-22 out of the library, it was not the aerial thrill ride I expected. Its protagonist-antihero, the bombardier Yossarian, was convinced that the real enemy was the army, which was trying to kill him. He was obviously a coward, but his reasoning made sense. The book was populated by a cast of goldbrickers, con artists, and incompetent idiots of the officer class—where were killing Nazis and winning the war in all this? And the book was funny, sort of, but in the oddest way, with jokes that ran on a kind of circular logic and trafficked in the surreal and the nonsensical. It was sexy too—I was of an age that the phrase “Nately’s whore” carried a potent charge. So I kept on reading to the shattering climax of Snowden’s high-altitude evisceration by flak, and by the end my brain waves had been completely rearranged, and the world began to assume a previously undreamt aspect of black-humored absurdism. Catch-22 did precisely that to millions of my generational cohort as well, altering our sensibility regarding all wars permanently.

Robert Capa, Doesn’t Mind the Heat, Somewhere in France (Saint-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte), June 16, 1944, gelatin silver print. From “Capa: Europe 1943–1945,” Galerie Daniel Blau, London, 2014.
Robert Capa, Doesn’t Mind the Heat, Somewhere in France (Saint-Sauveur-Le-Vicomte), June 16, 1944, gelatin silver print. From “Capa: Europe 1943–1945,” Galerie Daniel Blau, London, 2014.

But we are never just one thing. At about the same time I fell under the spell of Thomas Heggen’s once-wildly-popular 1946 service comedy Mister Roberts, set on the forlorn naval supply vessel Reluctant, which plies the backwaters of the Pacific theater “from Tedium to Apathy and back” with “an occasional trip to Monotony.” The enemy was not the Japanese but rather boredom in general and the martinet CO Captain Morton, against whom the crew wages a constant guerrilla campaign, in particular. The one inspiring figure on this rusting tub is the title character, First Lieutenant Doug Roberts, a gallant and highly competent officer whom the men worship just as much as they hate the captain. (Mister Roberts was played, naturally, in both the long-running Broadway play and the film adaptation by Henry Fonda.) Roberts is the anti-Yossarian: He thirsts to get to the real war as passionately as Yossarian dreams of getting away from it, and eventually the hated captain signs his transfer papers and gives him his wish. In the final days of the war, word gets back to the Reluctant that Mister Roberts had been killed when a kamikaze plane hit the destroyer on which he was finally serving. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. Despite its proto–McHale’s Navy, anti-authoritarian humor, Mister Roberts is a Good War text that leaves a lump in your throat.

Catch-22 and Mister Roberts represent opposing poles of sensibility in the American fiction of World War II. Joseph Heller’s disenchanted absurdism can be traced through Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), in which the horrific fact of his unlikely survival of the firebombing of Dresden propels the young schlemiel Billy Pilgrim clean out of consensus reality and into a science-fiction scenario, and climaxes in Thomas Pynchon’s dwarf-star-dense masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), an encyclopedia of black-humor strategies. These books held the upper hand in our apprehension of war for a long time, courtesy of the futility and illogic of the Vietnam War and the still-looming threat of nuclear annihilation.

But in the past decade or so, the Mister Roberts school—novels such as The Caine Mutiny (1952) by Herman Wouk, Tales of the South Pacific (1947) by James A. Michener, Battle Cry (1953) by Leon Uris, and The Young Lions (1948) by Irwin Shaw—have come to speak more directly to our understanding of World War II. The lump in my throat that I got reading Mister Roberts is the same reaction that Steven Spielberg succeeded in eliciting in tens of millions of viewers of Saving Private Ryan, that Tom Brokaw was aiming for in his mega-selling The Greatest Generation,and that I personally experienced while viewing the superb revival of the musical South Pacific, which for the longest time I regarded as utterly cornball stuff for parents only.

And I have not read Catch-22 since the mid-’60s—I’m afraid it might not be anywhere near as good as I remember. And that would be very, very confusing. I’m not sure I’d care to have to rearrange my brain waves again at this late date.

Gerald Howard is an editor at Doubleday.