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The Reality of War and Death

Updated June 27, 2022
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The Reality of War and Death essay

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The traumatic experience of war can physically and mentally harm a person, especially when they stand face to face with death continuously. This is what Joseph Heller faced during WWII in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier as he experienced the possibility of death and the destruction of war. This shaped the way Heller thought of war and the people who lead it. In his novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller reveals his beliefs through his book and his characters as they battle in a war externally and internally. The main character, Yossarian is a bombardier who only wants to survive and stay sane amongst the mayhem of war. He attempts to get out out of duty, but there’s a catch. “Catch-22” is a difficult situation where there is no solution because of the conflicting conditions. “Catch-22” and the steady rise of missions continues to derail the mental state of Yossarian and the other men. In his satirical novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller follows the development of the antihero Yossarian, as he comes to realize the truth about war and struggles with his fear of death in the hands of the authority . Through Yossarian’s eyes, Heller develops the novel with an unsentimental view of war and the gory reality of death that dehumanizes men.

Heller illustrates the exploitation and illogical reasoning of war and how anyone under the authority of a military or political leader must submit. These men must obey “Catch-22” and the detached bureaucracy that supports the war. Men during war have no choice or opinions when it comes to actions that could potentially get them killed and continue to make decisions that seem to only benefit them. In the novel, Hungry Joe “finished flying his first twenty-five missions…[until] Colonel Cathcart…rais[ed] the number of missions required from twenty-five to thirty” (Heller 53). Colonel Cathcart made this decision with no regard for his men to be able to impress his leaders, despite the fact that many men will become stuck in this cycle of unfairness that may lead to their death. Heller captures this dreadful decision through a humorous and satirical description of the event to embody the absurdity of the actions of the Colonel. He mocks the actions of those who hold power and attacks the lack of mortality in them.

The greediness of these men continue to consume them and they ignore how their actions of rising up to power is degrading the minds of the men following their orders and institution that was designed to aid society is the catalyst that put men down. Heller communicates his feelings and thoughts of war through the actions of Yossarian and projects his unconscious thoughts through his characters actions and voice. His novel differs from his unconscious as “they are not designed to conceal, but to embody and reveal” his thoughts on the corruption of the bureaucracy and the way they disregard the men who get their hands dirty (Withim 174). Heller expresses his thoughts broadly and in the beginning achieves to send a message that relays that the word of the authority is final. He expresses his ideas through the retelling of the characters’ stories through Yossarian’s eyes and demonstrates the unfairness that he believes happens in the reality of war.

The military system is corrupted by greed and is the real enemy to these men, and not the people who they are fighting. He reveals his thoughts by projecting it into reality by characterizing Yossarian as this antihero who only wants to survive and defy his authority. Heller is able to convey this through his own personal experience as a bombardier during the war. Like Yossiarian, he has experienced near death experience and criticizes the institution for putting him in that position as he believes it benefited them. His work reflects how a “provoking occasion in the present has been able to arouse” his subconscious beliefs as it escalates his negative thoughts on how the war operates and the massive toll it has on those who are in it (Brooks 338).

Heller explores the traumatic reality of facing death and how men develop defenses to deal with the fear of death. People experience different scenarios that can be traumatic and they build up defenses that can protect them from their reality. Men internally battle with their instincts, reality, and morality as they go through life with new expectations. The authority have no regards to the way their decisions accelerate the mental decay that their men are going through. They set rules and regulations that hold back men from safety and put them face to face with death constantly. Yossarian’s fear of death is accelerated with the idea that everyone is out to kill him and every mission puts him face to face with death. The rule “catch-22…says [they] always got to do what [their] commanding officer tells [them] to” and this tends to put the men in a situation where they cannot escape, as there is no loophole (Heller 68). Heller is mocking the institution with this illogical and ironic rule as it captures the way leaders keep people under them. Yossarian “had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive” (Heller 38). This sentiment is supported by Yossarian’s past experience in missions and how he realizes that he cannot make it out alive when the goal isn’t to end the war but to gain power.

The war has not encouraged Yossarian to become a hero amongst the chaos but to realize the vulnerability of life. The only thing he thinks about is how/when he will die and how the military is keeping him trapped there with the rising mission requirements. But whether he makes it out of the war, Yossarian still dwells that death is inevitable. The continuous interaction with the edge of death can make a man spiral and question his actions regarding life vs death. They continue to block experiences that traumatizes them but it unconsciously tends to impact they way they think and act. Yossarian replaying the death of his fellow comrade reveals his anxiety and fear of the inevitability of death and how war makes any man vulnerable to it; and that he cannot control where his life is going to end. War had made him realize that his life is not in his hand but in an institution that aids in the death of many men and disregard life for power. Yossarian learns that “ he is not autonomous, that there is an outside something, a note-self, an Other … on whom he is dependent” (Manheim 32). The war had connected him to this corrupted system and he has to distinguish the difference between himself and the institution that controls him.

The fear of death is not only controlled by his internal battle but by the experiences that the institution put him in. Yossarian reliving a traumatic memory and revealing it throughout the course of the novel demonstrates his repression and how it connects to his idea that everyone is out to kill him. As he witnesses more of his comrades dying, Yossarian has decided to go on the route of self-preservation to be able to protect himself and is constantly followed by his fear of death and his instincts are battling with his reality. Heller himself experienced the same scenario that his character Yossarian goes through, and he continuously reveals the negative aspect of war and how one scenario could stay with a person forever. In “Shakespearean Tragedy and the Three Ways of Psychoanalytic Criticism” Holland states that when a character tends to stand out based on their actions and voice, it must represent the author itself (Holland 218). Both Heller and Yossarian get influenced by their unconscious thoughts as they experience the reality of war/death and the detrimental power it has to bring down men. This is developed through the voice of the author and of his character.

Heller relays a message that war benefits from the demands they put upon their men and command actions that are not honest. Yossarian’s battle with death is projected by Yossaran’s repression of certain events that lead the character to believe that death is not in their hands but in the hands of power, and Other. Through a psychoanalytic criticism lens, Heller reveals his conscious beliefs through Yossarian’s behavior that the fear of death is not driven by faceless enemies but by an institution that treats the men unjustly and aids in the advancement of their spiraling minds. He advances this through Yossarian’s involvement in the war and the repetitive exposure of experiences and memories that guides him to believe that his fear of death is influenced by the actions of war.

The main character’s behavior towards authority reveals Heller’s internal belief that the people in power have no regards to their men and are greedy to rise up the ladder. His thoughts are represented by Yossarian’s erratic stream of consciousness narrative as he retells humorous events that have happened and reveals the actions of the leaders in a satirical light. Heller combines his real world and his imagination by “withdrawing from the “real” world he lays himself open to the charge of equating his chosen world with reality “ (Donnelly 180). This advances the novel as it develops Yossarian’s fear with death to be connected with Heller’s beliefs as he incorporates this in Yossarian’s thoughts. Heller continues to reveal how men are driven by greed and not by honest ideas when Yossarian is given an option from Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn to either “support” them or be court-martialed because of his actions (Heller 424).

Cathart and Korn don’t want Yoassarian to be an influence because his comrades look up to him, which could negatively impact their success. He shows this through how Yossarian behaves towards his authority figures and how he has decided that death is not the one going to kill him but the selfishness of war is. The actions that are done during a time of war tend to be either life and death for the men who follow the orders of their leaders. These men tend to come back mentallly and physically different. Heller connects the responsibility of war on the destruction of men and the permanent effects of experiencing death with Yossarian’s internal conflict. As Yossarian continues to relive the traumatic events of Snowden’s death, he has concluded that “man was matter…the spirit gone, man is garbage” (Heller 440). Heller’s description of Snowden’s death reveals the message that men don’t die for a reason or a cause but men are used as a pawn in a game. The institution treats its men inhumanly for a dishonest cause and does not care about the effects it has on the men who die and the men who live.

Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person ‘the world today’ or ‘life’ or ‘reality’ he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever. (Knowles 40)

In the novel A Separate Peace, Gene’s actions are greatly influenced by the incident that injured and eventually killed Finny. The events leading up to the incident and the act itself has influenced the actions and thoughts of Gene, like Yossarian with Snowden’s death. Gene’s “moment” is Finny and Yossarian’s “moment” is Snowden’s death. Certain moments will stick with a person. This is when Yossarian stopped trying to be brave but trying to survive. This one moment drives his actions throughout the novel as it gave him a certain view of death. A person witnessing a traumatic event can lead them to relive it for the rest of their life or a person can learn to repress it as their mind battles on how to perceive it. Heller uses his past experience to connect to Yossarian’s actions and thoughts to be able to convey the reality of the military institution and how it influences the unconscious mind of men. These men will experience conflict internally and externally because of what they have seen and it’s all due to the hands of the leaders, not death itself.

All in all in the novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller explores the negative reality of the military institution and reveals how the real enemy isn’t death but the greedy and detached power of the institution that aids in dehumanization of men. He reveals that when a person is continuously on the verge of death and lived through traumatic events, their minds will build up defenses that will unconsciously guide them. This is connected to how the men in war are driven by their fear of death due to their experiences with it because of the duties they must perform to benefit the institution.

Works Cited

  1. Brooks, Peter. “The Idea of a Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism.” Vol. 13, no. 2, 1987, pp. 334–348. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1343497. Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
  2. Donnelly, Mabel Collins. “Freud and Literary Criticism.” Vol. 15, no. 3, 1953, pp. 155–158. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/371867. Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
  3. Heller, Joseph, and Christopher Buckley. Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition. Simon & Schuster, 2011.
  4. Holland, Norman N. “Shakespearean Tragedy and the Three Ways of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Vol. 15, no. 2, 1962, pp. 217–227. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3848539. Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
  5. Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. Scribner, 2003.
  6. Manheim, Leonard F. “Newer Dimensions in Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Vol. 50, no. 1, 1972, pp. 29–34., www.jstor.org/stable/1491986. Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
  7. Withim, Philip. “From Symptom to Process: the Movement of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Vol. 25, no. 3, 1973, pp. 173–183., www.jstor.org/stable/27796374. Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
The Reality of War and Death essay

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