Sunday, September 28, 2008

Banned Books Week: Day Two
War: What Is It Good For?

by Pa Rock
Cultural Commentator

I can vividly recall the most difficult book that I ever read. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was so bewildering with its many quirky characters and numerous time shifts that I abandoned the effort to complete it twice, each time after finishing a couple of hundred pages. The third attempt was just as mind-muddling, but I resolved to stick with it and master the complex book just so that I could understand what all of the hype was about. And it was in the final hundred pages or so where all of the plots, sub-plots, snippets, and varying time perspectives came together to reveal a meaningful tale about the senselessness of war.

Joseph Heller was a bombardier with the Army Air Corps on an island just off the coast of Italy during World War II. After the War he spent the next six years writing his masterwork, Catch-22, a war story that revolved around Captain Yossarian, a bombardier for the Army Air Corps on an island just off the coast of Italy during World War II.

Heller's book was a tragic, yet humorous, examination of the horrors and shenanigans of war. His Captain Yossarian wanted nothing more than to go home. Each time he came close to completing the required number of bombing missions needed to get sent home, his colonel, who desperately wanted to be a general, would increase the requisite number of missions. (A bait-and-switch gimmick much like the one used by George Bush in the Oil War to keep troops from leaving the service after their time was up through a back-door draft called "stop-loss.")

Milo Minderbinder was the mess officer for Heller's fictional outfit. Milo saw war as a profit making venture. (Think Dick Cheney and Halliburton.) He bought and sold goods on the black market and formed a syndicate of war companies in which he and all of his friends held shares. Milo sold opportunities, and once arranged for the Germans to bomb his own unit - for a fee, of course.

And there were dozens of other strange individuals populating Yossarian's island. Woven together they told a tale of the uselessness, tragedy, and universality of war, albeit in somewhat of an absurd manner. Joseph Heller did not view war in a particularly patriotic light, and that attitude has resulted in Catch-22 often landing on lists of banned books.

Another war book that should be equally objectionable is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a story of the U.S. military in Vietnam. Like Catch-22, The Things They Carried was also semi-autobiographical in nature, with the central character being an Army company clerk named Tim O'Brien. It is the story of O'Brien's year in Vietnam and the people and situations he encountered. This book is much more readable than Catch-22, and every bit as good - if not better. Both books define war in less than heroic terms. I have not seen The Things They Carried on any banned book lists yet, but it is so good that I'm sure that honor will be forthcoming!

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