Monday, January 24, 2011

Five books on Americans abroad

Charles Glass is a broadcaster, journalist and writer, who began his journalistic career in 1973 at the ABC News Beirut bureau with Peter Jennings. He covered the October Arab-Israeli War on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. He also covered civil war in Lebanon, where artillery fire wounded him in 1976. He was ABC News Chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993. Since 1993, he has been a freelance writer in Paris, Tuscany, Venice and London, regularly covering the Middle East, the Balkans, southeast Asia and the Mediterranean region. He has also published books, short stories, essays and articles in the United States and Europe.

With Marina Jankovic at FiveBooks, he discussed some favorite books about his countrymen in other countries, including:
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

It’s one of the funniest books ever written. It’s about the insanity of military life and the absurdity of a big institution. Heller was very good on the absurdity of big institutions. Catch 22 has every character in it that the American military did have at the time and still has today in Iraq and Afghanistan: the money-makers, the crooks, the officers who were trying to claw their way to the top where they get their men killed, the placing in order of priority the pretence of military success at the cost of many civilian lives.

There’s a section in Catch 22 about the bombing of Ferrara. Its military significance is immaterial; it was a military objective so defined by a machine that did not brook insubordination or men dropping their bombs in the water, which they did because they don’t want to kill lots of innocent Italians. Things like that did happen in the war. I’m writing a book now about the military in Italy and France in World War II and most of what Heller wrote is actually true.

There is the suggestion that the bureaucrats behind the war machine are to blame, or is the enemy actually within?

Both. The insane military bureaucracy, the machine that cannot be stopped by human will, the black markets, the Milo Minderbinders. There were lots of characters like Milo Minderbinder selling their own supplies, like food, cigarettes, clothing, blankets and gas on the black market, supplies that should have been sent to the front. These characters still exist and there were lots of them in the US military during the war and some of them made millions. There were shortages of gas and artillery shells at the front as they’d been stolen.

Catch 22 is very funny and you know it’s satire, but when you study the history you know that Heller knew exactly what he was talking about, partly because he himself had fought as a solider.

What is Catch 22?

Catch 22 is about insanity. If you want out of flying combat missions as an American flyer in the US air forces on a basis of insanity it means you must be sane because you don’t want to get killed. That’s the catch.

What’s the catch for Americans in combat missions now?

The Catch 22 no longer applies as that system doesn’t apply. If you flew a certain number of missions, you wouldn’t have to fly any more. Now they really don’t fly the number of missions they flew then. And now, when they do fly missions, it’s not really so difficult as they’re not opposed by anyone. You can fly jets all over Iraq and Afghanistan and bomb whatever target you want to bomb, but you’re really not taking much of a risk. There are no fighter planes to oppose you and very little anti-aircraft fire, so it’s not comparable on that level.

And on the level of metaphor?

The risk to one’s own psyche as a soldier, what you have to do to the civilian population of these places, the contempt in which you must hold them, the sheer larceny that takes place in Iraq and Afghanistan by the private contractors, Halliburton being the classic example, is all out of Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22. That hasn’t changed; if anything it’s much much worse. Except now it’s semi-legalised.

What’s made it legal?

Instead of Milo Minderbinder having to set up a company as a soldier, now he would be a private businessman lobbying congress for contracts, lobbying the Bush or Obama White House for contracts without tenders or any bidding. Now you just walk away with a lot of cash and provide very little in the way of services.

Is the enemy within?

There’s insanity within, criminality within, but the enemy to the American people and the enemy to the people of the countries America occupies is really the American industrial military complex that Eisenhower warned about.

Does insanity help combat?

I’m speaking of institutional insanity. The project is crazy. Occupying Afghanistan and Iraq is crazy. Many soldiers suffer severe psychological traumas that many will never recover from, which we saw in Vietnam as well. There are still casualties of that war walking around who are not mentally well. They’ve never recovered.

Is the rational mind equipped to deal with these situations?

One could say that theoretically but many people do cope and come back and lead normal lives. That’s the reality.
Read about another book tagged by Glass at The Browser.

Catch-22 is among Avi Steinberg's six books every prison should stock, Patrick Hennessey's six books to take to war, Jasper Fforde's five most important books, Thomas E. Ricks' top ten books about U.S. military history, and Antony Beevor's five best works of fiction about World War II. While it disappointed Nick Hornby upon rereading, it made Cracked magazine's "Wit Lit 101: Five Classic Novels That Bring the Funny."

--Marshal Zeringue