On the contrary, Lt. Col. Steve Staley said he had read "Catch-22" on five separate occasions. "It's kind of a Bible around here," Staley said.
Presenting a paper on the role of women in "Catch-22," Capt. Joan Robertson said she had read the book three times since July alone. "It's timeless," she said. "It's funny, and at the same time it's very serious."
Robertson even tried to include a reference to "Catch-22" in her doctoral dissertation on Latin and Greek poets, but lost out when her adviser "argued against it as slangy."
While Brig. Gen. Jesse C. Gatlin, professor emeritus of English at the academy, said he had read "Catch-22" "at least" 10 times, his friend Frederick T. Kiley remembered the first time he took on the novel.
"I was down in the Delta, at Binh Thuy--that was a Vietnamese air force base--and I was seeing a friend of mine." Directly above Kiley's friend, in the upper bunk, "there was an older guy lying in his bunk, and he was reading something. It was 'Catch-22.' That was in 1968.
Read It in Vietnam
"I read it over there, in Vietnam," said Kiley, now the director of research at Washington, D.C.'s National Defense University and co-author of "A Catch-22 Casebook" (T. Y. Crowell). "That was where it made sense. That was what it was all about, that asylum we were all in."
For his part, Heller is vehement in maintaining that "Catch-22" is neither anti-war nor anti-military. "My own experience in World War II, I am almost ashamed to say, was extremely beneficial, very orderly," former bombardier Heller said. "I can't recall a single unpleasant experience with any superior officer."
But to conference director Lt. Col. Thomas P. Coakley, Heller's novel clearly has special significance to members of the United States armed forces.
"Those of us who have been in the military have known our Col. Cathcarts and our Col. Korns," Coakley said, "and have seen the kind of absurdities that you run into when the mechanisms that are supposed to operate the bureaucracy start to operate on their own."
"If it's anti-war and anti-military," Capt. Cordell Kyllo said of the book, "then why the hell would the military put on a production of it? The answer is that it explains how we are, how we can exist in an organization, taking orders and seeing them as ludicrous at the same time."
The book transcends the sphere of the military, Frederick Kiley said--"Try to get a telephone installed"--but, he agreed, "I think it appeals particularly to the military, because the military are the guys who go out after the politicians have screwed things up."
Indeed, Colorado State University English Prof. John Clark Pratt, formerly an English instructor at the Air Force Academy, noted the splendid acting-out of the message of the book when "we were paid by the United States government to teach 'Catch-22' to cadets during the Vietnam War."
The novel, he contends, "should be seen as a paradigm for the Vietnam War." For example, "the medals: many of which--a great number of which--were awarded for fictitious events. The real reasons were too classified to be revealed."
Or, said Pratt, "there were the missions in Laos that didn't count." Because "we were not officially at war with Laos, there were a lot of people who came home with 150 flights who only got credit for 100."
Using the Book
Scheduled to teach "Catch-22" to freshmen cadets at the Air Force Academy three weeks from now, Capt. Mark Braley was troubled by Pratt's comments. How, he asked, "can I use this book to build better officers within the system?"
Easy, said Pratt: "With 'Catch-22' you teach future officers to be productively schizophrenic: that is, to take orders and to question them at the same time.
"Treat 'Catch-22' as a realistic novel," Pratt advised. "It's a good text."
Which was, after all, what prompted the Air Force Academy to join with its Assn. of Graduates and the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities in throwing this birthday shindig for "Catch-22." Certainly the event was not without its public relations appeal, Lt. Col. Tom Coakley conceded, but "for us, essentially, it started as a way of getting together some people and enjoying the fact that it has been a book we have been enjoying for 25 years."