Fragile. Reversible. Catch-22.

Many of my favorite novels are about war. Among those favorites, very near the top of the list, is Catch-22. I read it when it came out, in 1961, a couple years after I got out of the Army. I was dazzled by it. Intoxicated. Spellbound.

A strange thing about Catch-22: Among friends and acquaintances to whom I recommended the book — and I urged it on every likely candidate for a year or more — there was a near-perfect divide. Those who had served in the military loved it, thought it moving and funny and brutally true. Those without military experience found it dull, humorless, nearly pointless.

I haven’t tried, in later years, to sort my friends into those who have or have not read Catch-22, those who have or have not served in the military. So I don’t know whether the correspondence persists.

This all came back yesterday as I was listening to, and later, reading, the Senate testimony of Petraeus and Crocker. The tripping phrase — the one which triggered the memory and the one over which I stumbled when I read it — was “fragile and reversible.”

The progress which has been made in Iraq is fragile and reversible.

“Fragile and reversible” does not differentiate progress in Iraq from any other kind. All progress is fragile and reversible; every step forward risks its opposite number. We always know, unless we are children, that it is uncertain. Sometimes we cannot be sure, at the time, whether a particular step has taken us forward or back.

“Fragile and reversible” then, applied to something which we already know to be intrinsically tentative, is a warning. The person who describes it thus — who wires on the superfluous caveat — says more than he may have meant to. He acknowledges that this thing, this putative movement which he calls “progress,” is even less than uncertain. It is, he confides, not so much a reality as it is wishful thinking. It is an arbitrary and prejudiced interpretation of an ambiguous situation.

“Fragile and reversible” is the language neither of warfare nor or diplomacy. Nor is it the language of legislative debate, or judicial ruling. It is the language of the emergency room, of the operating room. That is where it is spoken in candor. Otherwise, it is the language of dissimulation, of obfuscation.

Well then, you will say. There it is. Iraq as emergency room, Iraq as operating room. Is that not a suitable metaphor?

It is more than suitable. It is damn near perfect, except for one thing.

It continues.

It began more than five years ago, and threatens to go on for five more. Or for fifty more. Emergency rooms and operating rooms deal in minutes or hours. They do not deal in years and decades.

That is why I come back to Catch-22 when I try to parse Petraeus, to comprehend “fragile and reversible.”

Catch-22 is set in World War II Southern Europe. The protagonist, Yossarian, is in a unit which is repeatedly sent on bombing raids over the city of Bologna. The city is heavily defended, and each raid means more planes shot down, more airmen killed. These suicidal raids will stop only when the Allied front lines advances beyond Bologna.

That line is represented on a map at the airbase. Someone suggests that, to save their own lives, they ought to just move the line on the map. Clevinger, another pilot, is shocked.

“I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”

In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.

Fragile and reversible progress is what you get when you slip out of the tent at night and move the line on the map.

One thought on “Fragile. Reversible. Catch-22.

  1. Catch-22 is the greatest book ever written on the folly and stupidity which occurs in war. I remember the first time I tried to read it, in high school, I gave up after reading the first quarter of it because it just made no sense. A couple years later, after repeatedly hearing that it was a great book, I resolved to force myself to read it all the way through. I’m glad I did, and I’ve reread it a couple of times since then.

    What’s really striking is the similarity between the General in the book and the Generals that ran the early part of the Iraq war. Arrogence + power + stupidity is a deadly combination. It remains to be seen if Petraeus is in the same mold but, at this point, I think not. He’s done a good job, IMO, of getting results while navigating the minefield of public opinion AND keeping his bosses happy. After all, he has seen, repeatedly, what happens to military leaders who disagree with the Commander in Chief.

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