By Tom Moradian
Published in 1961, Catch-22 sold 10 million copies by 1968. The novel’s dark humor fed the bitterness many felt about the Vietnam War. Today, many feel the same about senseless wars that have consumed our nation’s resources and maimed or killed a new generation of soldiers. It is time to revisit Catch-22 and recognize a victim of war that Fresnans and readers everywhere have known for three generations.
William Saroyan was at the height of his fame when he was drafted in World War II. This individualist failed utterly as a soldier and rejected his automatic promotion to Private, First Class. His journal bitterly describes war:
It is the vilest, the deadliest disease there is…I despise the heroism it brings out of people; I despise the courage, the gentility, the kindness and all the other good things it brings out of them, for I cannot understand why a war is required to bring these natural and commonplace things out of them…There are better reasons for being human than inhumanity.
Saroyan appealed to an Army board to be released because he was insane but was accused of pretending. Saroyan responded, “Can you be any crazier than someone who’s pretending to be crazy?”
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller answers this question. The novel’s main character is Yossarian, another individualist serving miserably in the military. A bombardier, he jettisons his plane’s bombs harmlessly when possible, instead of destroying targets and lives.
Like Saroyan, Yossarian tries—nudity is one of his strategies—without success to convince the Army he is insane and should be released. Catch-22 defeats him. This regulation states that those seeking to avoid combat due to insanity cannot be insane and therefore must remain in service. A corollary: Those not seeking to avoid combat must be insane. Millions of soldiers, then, are even crazier than Saroyan, who only pretended to be crazy.
Saroyan and Yossarian are one in their desperate attempts to escape the war by pleading insanity. They are one in prizing their identity as individuals, which the military crushes. And one can suppose these bold individuals are also one in having objected strenuously to being forced into the war.
This objection is the subject of a story in The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, the collection published in 1934 that established young Saroyan as one of our great writers. So similar are Saroyan and Yossarian, and so similar are Saroyan and the story’s main character, that I take the liberty of calling this character Saroyan-Yossarian in this brief description of the story, “Fight Your Own War.”
An aspiring writer, Saroyan-Yossarian repeatedly rejects being recruited into military service to fight against people he has nothing against. This greatly perplexes the officers sent to recruit him. War is declared and military police join these officers, who threaten to arrest the writer for desertion. Still the writer is not impressed. Arrested, he knocks an officer down and is overpowered as he shouts “Fight your own war!”
This brave demand, shouted by Saroyan-Yossarian as he resists overwhelming power, is the action of a man who drops bombs harmlessly. It is the action of soldier Saroyan-Yossarian, who appears on the first page of Catch-22 enjoying a hospital stay.
Saroyan’s “Fight Your Own War” is the opening of Catch-22, which continues the story of a gentle human’s bold resistance to the insanity of war. This gentle human is Fresno’s old, good friend, whose works we read rarely, but whose name we use as spice.
Keen readers may notice how Heller plays with this name to come up with “Yossarian.”
Don’t believe me. I like to make things up. Read Saroyan’s “Fight Your Own War” and then read Catch-22. See for yourself that Fresno’s greatest person is also the champion of peace and decency in our greatest antiwar novel.
Tom Moradian grew up knowing William Saroyan as a kind man and a great storyteller. He suggests reading Saroyan’s story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze as medicine for the madness of our time. Contact Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.