Friendship & Comradery – April 6
Our last session was attended by Dan, Mattia, Phil, Vic and Bruce, and discussion was lively. We began with and returned intermittently to the way Catch-22 considers gender and, to a lesser degree, class. Interestingly, we veered unguided into a the subject of local economies in war time.
The role of local Italian women in the book, predictably, centers on their status as vessels for the men’s sexual desire. This is of course—sadly—predictable and unremarkable. First, we discussed the women at the center of the nightlife and sex parties sponsored by the squadron and their ambiguous status as proper prostitutes or simply as free women trying to have fun in wartime on the GI dime. Bruce pointed out that all of the Italian men were off somewhere at war, and that adult women had little options for male companionship. Catch-22 is nothing if not about contradictions. And Luciana’s insistence that she could never marry Yossarian because she is not a virgin stands in stark opposition to the suggestion that the other women were just there for a good time. One wonders if Heller was saying that the war had sullied Italian or European culture all the way down to traditionally-held concepts of female virtue.
Consider as well Yossarian’s penultimate crusade to find and help Nately’s whore’s kid sister, whom he assumes is destitute after having been run out of the apartment by the White Helmets. This is the culminating choice (and possible redemption, if that’s possible) of his character: he resolves to do whatever he can, including jeopardizing his own welfare, unthinkable throughout the bulk of the novel, to locate and help her.
We also discussed whether the prostitution of Italian women in World War II filled an economic gap left by the war. Bruce and Phil talked about how American GIs in Vietnam paid local women to do their laundry, filling a similar function. Dan pointed out that American bases in Iraq similarly hosted local merchants selling wares and bootleg DVDs but that, contrarily, contractors were imported from all over the world to provide steadier logistical and essential services like laundry, food services, and barber shops, as well luxuries like the provision of Wifi in two-man, air-conditioned shipping container-turned-dorm rooms. (He recalled using a bathroom that was regularly cleaned by paid employees. Imagine: Marines not cleaning their own bathrooms.) As the modern battlefield has morphed from army-on-army to ‘three-dimensional warfare,’ perhaps the economic adjustments have been hijacked to serve new (cross-) purposes as well; that the opacity of where friendlies end and enemies begin has created a third-dimensional actor, whose motive (GREED) is ultimately simpler though less-apparent, and certainly more sinister.
There’s no doubt that Heller would agree with legendary Marine Smedley Butler’s assessment that “War is a racket,” and it’s hard not to draw comparisons—or infer prescience, even—between the role Milo Minderbender and M&M Enterprises play in profiting from and needlessly provoking the war and the rapaciousness of modern day government contractors such as KBR, Halliburton and countless others in profiting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and however the U.S. classifies its death dalliances in numerous other nations in the surrounding region, to say nothing of the relentless proliferation of elite special forces units and the government’s role as a sponsored training program for private and immensely lucrative mercenary armies that call themselves ‘contractors’ and patriots.