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The Good Soldier Yossarian

April 23, 2000|GLORIA EMERSON | Gloria Emerson is the author of several books, including "Winners & Losers," an account of the Vietnam War, which won a National Book Award. Her novel "Loving Graham Greene" will be published by Random House in September

If it hasn't occurred to you that "Catch-22" was the first great American novel on the Vietnam War before we knew what was happening there, consider this berserk little scene that I witnessed one day at an Army base far from Saigon. A young Army psychiatrist, clearly a forlorn draftee like so many others, was having brief sessions with enlisted men who felt they were losing their wits and needed to talk. It was an exercise in futility.

I was allowed to sit in the little room if I remained silent. A squad leader in from the field--dirty, agitated, suspicious--tried to explain in the fewest words possible that he had almost blacked out when his squad was in a firefight.

"Have you tried breathing in a paper bag?" the psychiatrist asked. "You might be hyperventilating." The idea of panting in a paper bag while under AK-47 fire had a malevolent charm. The soldier, speechless at first, made a final desperate attempt.

"Doc, we were taking fire."

"Why don't you try?" the psychiatrist asked.

The military command in Vietnam hoped that little chats with a psychiatrist might reduce the numbers of mutinous GIs who disobeyed their officers, tried to kill them, wrote "F--- the Army" anyplace they could and wore peace symbols, love beads and homemade Black Power bracelets and necklaces. On that day, and so many others to come, I thought of dear Yossarian, the lead bombardier in "Catch-22," a sane and kind 28-year-old man who thought everybody was trying to get him killed, which was almost true. Yossarian didn't care whether his bombs hit their targets; his concern was to avoid enemy anti-aircraft fire and not to be too close to exploding German planes. His nerve was gone; it had rotted away.

Yossarian felt persecuted, with reason, by the odious Colonel Cathcart, who kept raising the number of missions Yossarian's squadron had to fly. Forcing the men into combat was his only tangible achievement. (In Vietnam, the troops knew what it meant to carry a grudge against an officer who kept them in the field too long.) Yossarian decides to go crazy so he will be grounded, but he doesn't anticipate the result. Anyone who tries to get out of combat is not crazy, therefore he must keep going into combat. There was no end in sight.

Conversations were a mockery; language was never useful. In Vietnam, correspondents were issued accreditation cards saying in case of capture they were entitled to the rank of major. The benefit of this was unclear to all.

"I don't want to be a major," I complained. "I'm a civilian. Being a major will only make it worse."

"There is no choice," said the soldier in the press office. Right away you knew there was a seed of Colonel Cathcart in this fellow, and it was only a question of time before it began to bloom.

Colonel Cathcart, who wrote a directive ordering the men to wear neckties on combat missions, did not annul the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade dreamed up by a conniving captain. "All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tents, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks," Heller wrote.

But it was a minor character in "Catch-22," Colonel Korn, who speaks the words imprinted in the brains of so many officers in the wars to come. The occasion was deciding what to do about Yossarian after it took him two sorties to destroy a bridge. Colonel Cathcart was fussing over how to cover this up in his report. Clever Yossarian suggests he be given a medal for finally hitting the target. This is agreed on. Yossarian is also promoted to captain. "You know, that might be the answer--to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That's a trick that never seems to fail," Colonel Korn said.

How Colonel Korn would have appreciated and enjoyed the daily five o'clock briefing in Saigon for the large press corps, who christened it the Five O'Clock Follies and often made a ruckus as the war went on.

Yossarian tried to warn the other men about the perils surrounding them from their own officers and the punishment that might come whether they were guilty or not. When young Clevinger was called before an Action Board for some trumped-up transgressions, it was very strange to him. " . . . but the strangest of all, to Clevinger, was the hatred, the brutal, uncloaked, inexorable hatred of the members of the Action Board, glazing their unforgiving expressions with a hard, vindictive surface. Clevinger was stunned to discover it. They would have lynched him if they could. They were three grown men and he was a boy, and they hated him and wished him dead. . . ."

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