The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.
Joseph Heller- Catch 22
Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.
I concluded an interesting experience this evening. It is always intriguing when I am presented with two contrasting views and then forced to reconcile my own feelings. This has happened to me regarding the subjects of patriotism, honor and courage. To begin with, I just finished reading the “classic” novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. At the same time I have been watching the new miniseries on John Adams based on the popular biography by David McCullough.
On first glance the two may seem completely different and to a certain extent they are ( Catch 22 being a dark comedy and John Adams a dramatic real life biography). Still, I could not ignore the contrast in philosophies the two stories bring up. In Catch 22 the main character Yossarian’s objective in life is to not fly missions, to not serve. His rational for this decision makes sense- the less he goes into battle, the greater his chances for survival. The now famous “catch 22” by which the title gets its name (and the phrase was invented) refers to the idea that if a man wanted to fly more missions he’d be crazy; however, if he didn’t than he was sane and would have to fly the missions. It’s a circular argument that is interesting and certainly one I hope to never face.
Here is my problem with Heller’s book and the argument- how come honor, patriotism, the good of mankind, never even comes into play? There is not a single character in the novel with honor or courage. They are all simply trying to live. Surely in a battalion of men there would be a few soldiers who believed in the nobility of their task, who believed that freedom is worth paying the ultimate sacrifice for if needs be? In addition, what about those people that are not required to literally die but are asked to sacrifice their life in the form of their time, talents, energies and passions? What if all of these people took a Yossarian philosophy and did only the bare minimum- just enough to get by but not enough to make a real difference? Would this not have a terrible effect on our country?
In contrast I looked at the amazing life of John and Abigail Adams (as well as so many others featured in the film). They spent their entire life serving their fellow citizens. These missions put them in great physical harm and required personal hardships including separation from their children for years. Adams, Jefferson, Washington all were reluctant servants and yet they did it because they knew it was right. As much as I admire many politicians (and anyone who has talked to me knows I love politics!) I don’t think I know of one that could be called a reluctant servant.
Maybe I am too idealistic in my views but I feel this country was founded on the idea that individual citizens, individual voters would not only make wise decisions but would hold democracy and freedom above all else. I hope we are not as the characters in Catch 22- merely watching our own backs, making sure we come out ahead of everyone else. Look at the legacy of the early heroes, look what principles they taught generations through their sacrifice. It is difficult to deny that their courageous choices were nothing but of the highest importance. For example, if Washington had been selfish he could have become a King and been called “Your Highness” (Adams even put such a measure before congress). He refused, and we are all the better for it.
I am sure that if I was ever called into battle such choices would not be made lightly (as they are in Catch-22) but I hope I would have the courage needed to protect liberty. The only thing in my life that has been even a tiny bit similar to battle was my mission where everyday we were required to sacrifice time, family and home for a higher principle- for something I believe in strongly. During my mission I received great inspiration from the stories of the Mormon pioneers who sacrificed everything for religious freedom. I have always wondered if I could do what they did. I sincerely hope so. Just as I have a religious passion I also have a deep patriotic vein within me, and I hope like the many soldiers who have died to protect my country and freedoms I would be brave and do all that is required of me. Either way, I would like to think that the honorable route would be the most common- not the exception to the rule as in Catch 22.
I highly recommend watching the miniseries John Adams. It is remarkable on every level. The acting is superb- even in the small parts. The make up and costumes is some of the best I have ever seen. Before seeing the film I knew a bit about Washington, Hamilton, and particularly Jefferson; however, not much about Adams. I found it moving, personable, and non-vitriolic. In fact, all of the founding fathers except maybe Hamilton and Franklin, are portrayed in the film as simple men who served their country as best they could. This is what I expect out of myself and those around me each day. It is my greatest goal in life to live in a way that matters- that makes a difference for good. I am not perfect, and I certainly lead a small life; however, on occasion I have moments of decision, of integrity and faith. It is at these moments I pray that I think of future generations, of my loved ones, and of my country and hope I make the correct, if difficult choice.
One slight caution on the film- there is some adult content and I would recommend adults see it before children. I would actually feel comfortable showing most of it to older children and teenagers but it depends on the child. A few of the scenes including a surgery in the last film are tough to watch.