In war, our two working definitions of the word hysterical—histrionic/psychotic vs. hilarious/side-splitting—find common ground. Combat, once the subject of valiant military histories and oil paintings, became fodder for comedy once it finally became so deadly serious that it was impossible to process in any other manner. At a certain point pain sinks so deep that it bounces off the floor of human suffering and resurfaces as a giggle. Some of the 20th century’s greatest (and funniest) films— Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator, and, more recently, Inglourious Basterds—spring from this strange paradox of feeling. Some of the greatest books do, too.
In honor of the birthday of Mr. Joseph Heller, the author of what is probably the finest literary war comedy of all time, we’re highlighting his and other books that find the hoots in the hellacious thing we call war.
“There was only one catch…”
“…and that was Catch-22.” The eponymous rule in Heller’s so-upside-down-it’s-right-side-up vision of World War II stipulates that crazy pilots—ostensibly driven insane by the perils of war—can be excused from conflict, so long as they ask. But if they ask, and hence show “concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers,” they must have a rational, not crazy, mind, and therefore must fly more missions. Language is the conduit through which Heller telegraphs the surrealistic nature of war in Catch-22, with conversations and commands dissolving entropically into clouds of hypocritical nonsense.
Underneath all this rhetoric-vomit, of course, lies the very real pain of Captain Yossarian and his band of alliteratively-named colleagues and superiors, most of whom exhibit unrestrained unctuousness and self-aggrandizement. Does war bring out the man or the animal in us? And to what extent is political and military order predicated upon the dressing up of evil and stupidity in finely-worded Jabberwocky? These are the questions Catch-22 asks. The answers are rarely straightforward. “He was going to live forever,” goes a typical line, “or die in the attempt.”
Another writer who traces the (d)evolution of combat into a circus of inhumanity, triviality, and plain nonsense is Kurt Vonnegut.Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II chaplain’s assistant who, while being held prisoner in a Dresden slaughterhouse (“Schlachthof-fünf”), survives a catastrophic bombing—and then proceeds to lose his mind (or so the most rational among us will think).
While being treated for PTSD, he junk-feeds on science fiction novels, and, some years into his post-war married-with-kids life, takes a trip himself (not by choice) to an alien space ship billions of lightyears away from Earth. The plot, if you can imagine, only gets wilder from there (to give a glimpse, it involves a highly marriageable porn star).
But the real question hanging over this corrosively satirical novel is: Who’s loonier? The aliens who abduct war vets, the war vets who believe they’re being abducted by aliens, or the governments whose ruthless contests for dominion drive individuals like Billy to these maybe-hallucinations in the first place?
The best medicine
This novel by Dr. H. Richard Hornberger (pseudonymously, Richard Hooker), which inspired a successful film and an iconic TV series, is in some ways lighter than Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, and in other ways not. The elements of wartime dread—traumatic injuries, mass casualties, censorship, alcoholism—may come with more froth, but they’re what power the story’s comedy and give it its particular antic quality.
When Hooker has the Swampmen (the collective name for the three surgeon protagonists) cure Captain Waldowski’s suicidal depression by dropping him from a helicopter, he captures perfectly how little survival, in the context of war, resembles life.
Reimagining war as the daily grind
In David Abrams’ Fobbit, the War in Iraq finally gets the satirical war comedy it deserves. FOB (Forward Operating Base) is the name for the camp situated directly posterior to the frontlines—the “back-office of the battlefield”—where male and female military personnel (“fobbits”), in venerable service of their country, carry on what looks by all appearances like life back in regular ol’ ’Merica, complete with bathroom hookups, Xboxes, and—worst of all—desk jobs.
At their best, war comedies zero in on the dead hours and disparate inanities—in place of the valorous deaths and statuesque flag-raisings—that define wartime existence. Here, Abrams pays homage to the genre while giving it a fully contemporary varnish, showing military life to be, at times, as tedious and abstracted as it is grueling and desperate.