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Insanity of War Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 7 July 2017

Insanity of War

Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut were two of the most influential anti-war authors of the twentieth century. Heller and Vonnegut served in Second World War; Heller flew sixty missions as a bombardier and Vonnegut was awarded the Purple Heart as an infantry scout. Throughout the Vietnam War, these two authors were idolized for the heroic anti-war masterpieces that they wrote. College students throughout the country carried the novels Heller and Vonnegut wrote everywhere they went. Heller first published his book in 1961, right in the midst of Civil Rights Movement, a perfect time for a book that challenges the power of bureaucracy. Vonnegut published his novel eight years later in 1969, during the Vietnam War, a controversial period for American citizens. One student was quoted saying, “Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were part of a vanguard of writers my friends and I idolized” (Golly). Through the use of complex structures, highly effective literary styles, and character portrayal, Heller and Vonnegut helped to reveal the insanity of war.

Heller and Vonnegut both use a complex structure when writing their satirical anti-war novels. When writing Catch-22, Heller intentionally created a narrative that is hard to follow. While Heller admits that Catch-22 was meticulously structured in order to seem chaotic, he disagrees with the readers that claim Catch-22 is formless (Merrill 34). Merrill also claims that Heller says the real structure is artfully camouflaged (34). He speaks the ideas of multiple characters and tells the story in an unconventional manner. While the majority of the novel is written from the ideas, actions, and feelings of John Yossarian, the protagonist, Heller uses other characters to tell the story from a different perspective.

An example of this comes in Chapter 6, aptly named “Hungry Joe”, where Heller writes the ideas and feelings of Hungry Joe (Heller 51). Another comes in the twentieth chapter, where the narrative comes from Corporal Whitcomb (Heller 198). Heller also uses an unorthodox chronology while writing Catch-22. Multiple times during the text Heller makes obvious jumps in time, be it forward or back. Heller uses the number of missions to help the reader follow the chronology of this insane structure. On the twenty-first page, Doc Daneeka declares that the colonel want fifty missions (Heller). He then declares that the Twenty-seventh Air Force only requires forty missions and later on the same page they are required fifty-five missions (Heller 58).

Vonnegut also uses a complex structure when writing his book, Slaughterhouse-five, but rather than switching from character to character, he changes between past, present, future. Vonnegut uses a chronological scheme that is difficult to follow as well; he actually starts the narrative during the second chapter. He starts the novel, on page twenty-three, by talking about the past and tells us that the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, was born in 1922 (Vonnegut). Seven pages later, he jumps to 1944 describing his position of assistant chaplain and his first time being “unstuck in time” (Vonnegut 30). Then, during the fifth chapter, starting on page eighty-eight, he talks about the past again. When he was twelve years old, he went on vacation to the Grand Canyon that he hated (Vonnegut). In addition to using a complex structure, Vonnegut uses the phrase “So it goes” over one hundred times (Slaughterhouse-Five).

These writing structures both work to expose the insanity of war. Heller creates a chaotic atmosphere by writing through numerous characters and through a chronology that is anything but in a logical order. While Vonnegut employs the death of over a hundred people within Slaughterhouse-Five and uses an intensely paced, chronological mess (Vonnegut). They both write chapters and paragraphs that follow the same disorganized style. With the structures that Heller and Vonnegut use, they both create a chaotic atmosphere for their readers, similar to that of war. They attempt to place the readers in a situation that makes them feel similar to the authors, when they were in the military.

Heller and Vonnegut’s literary style is to create tension in the mind of the reader by shifting the narrative around from character to character and to and from different time periods. They do this in order to draw the readers closer to the soldiers and bombardiers of the Second World War. By doing so, they cause the readers to begin to wonder what will be happening next in the story; much like the way the soldiers of Catch-22 do on the fictional island of Pianosa and the Slaughterhouse-Five soldiers in the German city of Dresden (Heller, Vonnegut).

The overall pace of Catch-22 is slow; Heller is very descriptive and builds the setting and atmosphere. There is, however, parts of Catch-22 that are intense and fast paced. Heller uses this slow pace to build tension before the novel climaxes. Catch-22 becomes faster as it approaches the climax and the end of the novel. This change of pace ties directly to war; at first everything is slow, then suddenly, the characters are in the middle of a firefight or bombing mission, then it quickly ceases.

Slaughterhouse-Five uses a slightly faster pace throughout the novel; Vonnegut’s narrative is much shorter and does not go into as much depth as Heller’s story does. However, this is the same feeling that many soldiers of the Second World War felt. The soldiers and bombardiers do not always know what is happening next or, in regard to the current Iraqi war, which is the enemy and which is not.

Heller employs another literary device, called a motif, a recurring theme or device in literature, and in the novel written by Heller, the motif was catch-22. Heller incorporates many forms of the catch-22 throughout the novel. The main catch occurs when Yossarian must continue flying missions. Obviously anyone willing to risk their lives by flying these missions is crazy. The only way to be granted permission to stop flying the missions is to ask the commanding officer, but he cannot grant permission to be grounded unless it is asked of him.

However, anyone sane enough to ask a commanding officer to be grounded is clearly not insane because they have regard for their lives. Therefore, they must continue flying missions. In short, any circular argument that always works in favor of the bureaucratic system that puts it in place is a catch-22. These circular arguments trap soldiers within the chaos of war; they have no way to escape it because of the system that placed it. There is several other catch-22’s in the novel Catch-22, such as the open and close case against Clevenger in which all they need is something to charge him with and how they can only meet up with Major Major Major Major in his office when he is not in his office.

Vonnegut also employs the literary device motif, within his novel. He uses the phrase “So it goes” over one hundred times in Slaughterhouse-Five (Slaughterhouse-Five). He first uses the phrase “So it goes” when talking about Gerhard Muller’s, a cab driver, mother, who was incinerated in the Dresden fire-storm (Vonnegut 2). During chapter nine, Vonnegut writes about how Billy’s wife, Valencia, dies of carbon monoxide poisoning after an accident she caused while driving to the hospital Billy was taken to after a plane accident he was involved in (Vonnegut).

In the prior situation, Vonnegut ended to text with “So it goes,” this shows how the insanity of war causes death to mean so little to some people. The last use is on the second to last page, two hundred fourteen; he uses it after the death of Edgar Derby, an old, poor English teacher, who was arrested, tried, and shot for stealing a teapot (Vonnegut). Vonnegut uses the phrase “So it goes” to equalize all death. Through equalizing all death, Vonnegut brings forward how some bureaucratic systems feel about war and their effects on life. Vonnegut writes to point out the insanity of war; he shows his readers what war can cause and how his characters and their lives are affected.

Heller’s characters display insanity throughout Catch-22. An example of this occurs on page seventy-five, when the following conversation takes place:

“In sixty days you’ll be fighting Billy Petrolle,” the colonel with the big fat mustache roared. “And you think it’s a big fat joke.”

“I don’t think it’s a joke, sir,” Clevenger replied.

“Don’t interrupt”

“Yes, sir”

“And say ‘sir’ when you do,” ordered Major Metcalf.

“Yes, sir.”

“Weren’t you just ordered not to interrupt? ” Major Metcalf inquired coldly.

“But I didn’t interrupt, sir,” Clevenger protested.

“No, and you didn’t say ‘sir,’ either. Add that to the charges against him,” Major Metcalf directed the corporal who could take shorthand, “Failure to say ‘sir’ to superior officers when not interrupting them.” (Heller)

This conversation shows just how crazy some of Heller’s characters are. Through his dialogue, Heller shows the insanity of his characters and the absurdity of war. Conversations similar to this occur a dozens of times throughout Catch-22. Another example of Heller portraying insanity occurs when the IBM machine in control of the military ranking system gains a sense of humor. After only four days of enlistment, Private Major Major Major, one of Heller’s more awkward characters, becomes Major Major Major Major (Heller). This mistake portrays another chaotic situation that war created. The bureaucratic system causes confusion and people lose control of their responsibilities.

The actions of war depicted in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five, caused a large amount of death. The center of the book, the German city of Dresden, is approximated to have had at least thirty-five thousand and some sources say up to one hundred thousand casualties in the infamous firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War (Bombing of Dresden). A few characters from Slaughterhouse-five share the same insanity of those from Catch-22, such as Roland Weary, who is intent on glorifying himself and uses the fact that he saved Billy multiple times to do it (Vonnegut). Although the characters from Slaughterhouse-five don’t carry on crazy dialogues, they still portray madness through their actions, like when Wild Bob inquires if Billy is part of the regiment that he is colonel of, even though all his men are dead (Vonnegut).

Heller and Vonnegut use their characters in a way that proves that war does really take a toll of a person’s mental situation. Through their motifs, Catch-22 and “So it goes”, Heller and Vonnegut show that bureaucratic systems and death do not mix well. Systems like this shouldn’t have control over such a life altering things, especially since they carry the attitude “So it goes” throughout the war. It really is insane for a system to be in place in which someone has absolute control over another’s life.

And the ability of these people to have a “So it goes” attitude is as pure madness. The structure in Slaughterhouse-five and Catch-22 are very similar in that the both follow a chronology that is nowhere near in order. This is significant because it puts the reader into the insanity of war. The have the same confusion that soldier does until they realize what is really going on. Through the use of characters, motifs, and confusing chronologies; these brilliant antiwar authors capture the insanity of war.

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