Colonel Cathcart lived by his wits in an unstable, arithmetical world of black eyes and feathers in his cap, of overwhelmingly imaginary triumphs and catastrophic imaginary defeats. He oscillated hourly between anguish and exhilaration, multiplying fantastically the grandeur of his victories and exaggerating tragically the seriousness of his defeats. Nobody ever caught him napping.
— Joseph Heller, Catch-22
“There Was Only One Catch”
The ambitious Colonel Cathcart of Josehph Heller’s great American novel, Catch-22 lived in a world of his own imagining, where he toted up his victories and defeats int he bureaucratic struggle to become a general in terms of “black eyes” and “feathers in his cap.”
He is evocative of every Inside the Beltway and corporate warrior who battled the windmills of his organization, no matter how quixotic the struggle.
Catch-22 is erroneously hailed as one of the great novels to come out of World War II, along with James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. However, while the novel is set in the Italian theater during World War II, Heller always insisted that his great satire that gave us the catch-phrase “Catch-22” was about he Korean War and the post-World War II Red Scare that featured witch hunts and culminated with McCarthyism.
Heller’s burlesque was about the military-industrial-congressional complex that sprung up after the war, ostensibly to battle the Soviet Union and the threat of world communism, the very establishment that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who won the “Crusade in Europe” during the Second World War, warned America about in his farewell address. (Ike left out the term “congressional” from his personal axix of evil, but the former five-star general gave the English language the term “military industrial complex.”)
This was a time characterized by a crack down on Free Speech and dissent and assorted non-conformists who did not believe in war all the time, a perpetual “Cold War” against communism.
The book was a favorite of many, including Nelson Algren and Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck.
Eroding Free Speech
In that Catch-22 was an indictment of the Cold War mentality, the book is a mirror of our times, with terrorism replacing communism as the chief bugaboo of the American state.
Barack Obama, through his solicitor general Elena Kagan, has just won the greatest roll-back of First Amendment rights since the Dennis v. U.S. decision of the early ’50s (the time of Catch-22 spiritually, if not chronologically) put the Communist Party USA leadership in jail for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. In a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court cut back on First Amendment rights in the cases Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project & Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder.
The government’s anti-free speech case was was successfully argued by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Obama’s choice to replace retiring Judge John Paul Stevens, who voted with the majority.
In a remarkable bit of sophistry, prosecutors in the anti-Communist Dennis v. U.S. case presented the trope of “Aesopian language” to convict the CPUSA leadership, as what they were teaching was Karl Marx. Marx advocated the overthrow of capitalism, not the U.S.A. Using the Aesopian paradigm, in which words mean something other than their literal expression, advocating the overthrow of capitalism was equated with overthrowing America.
Justice William O. Douglas, the great liberal and defender of Free Speech, criticized the decision as it attacked education, which is one of the centerpieces of the First Amendment. After the decision, books on Marx, the USSR and communism disappeared from libraries, and Russian language, culture and literature programs were disbanded in the U.S.
In the two Humanitarian Law Project cases, the Obama administration supported the “material support” provision of anti-terrorism laws that bans American organizations from aiding foreign terrorist groups.
Under the material aid rule, Chief Justice Roberts upheld the Obama administration’s point of view, reasoning that helping terrorist organizations to adopt peaceful means was actually promulgating terror, as the terrorists could be insincere and be biding their time to go back to terror. Thus, an American group trying to convert proscribed groups to adopt peaceful means is actually aiding and abetting terror.
This logic is straight out of Catch-22.
President Obama has just suffered a black eye, the publication of a Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal, the Allied commander in Afghanistan, in which McChrystal and his aides criticize and mock the President and his Administration. The imbroglio likely will bolster the public perception of Obama as ineffectual and weak, a public image that has been waxing in the collective consciousness due to his poor handling of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The introduction to the Rolling Stone article reads, “Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”
The article is called “The Runaway General.”
The Rolling Stone profile is rather remarkable for General McChrystal and his aides do not cover up their contempt for President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and members of the Obama administration. The only Obama Administration member who gets a pass is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom McChrystal is grateful to for her unstinting support of his mission.
In addition to insulting the Vice President (who considers himself an expert on foreign affairs but who opposed the general’s request for more troops), McChrystal and his aides insult the President’s personal envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, former three-star general Richard Holbrooke. They also insult former Marine General James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, calling him a “clown.”
Even more remarkably, McChrystal denigrates his commander-in-chief, Barack Obama. Obama is portrayed as out of touch, intimidated by the top Pentagon brass. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States (who has never served in the military) is portrayed by an aide as being more interested in a photo opportunity than having an in-depth dialogue with McChrystal when Obama summoned the general to the White House to assume the Afghan command.
An aide tells Michael Hastings, the author of the article, about the meeting between the two men: “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his [expletive] war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”
The impression is that McChrystal and his staff thinks Obama is a weakling.
General McChrstal has issued a public apology. He has been recalled to Washington for a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, June 23rd. His mea culpa and an act of contrition before his commander-in-chief might save the 55 year-old military commander’s career.
All military officers serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief. They don’t have free speech rights. As General of the Army George C. Marshall famously said, the ideal soldier has no politics.
The five-star general served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s military right-hand man during World War II and distinguished himself as Secretary of State and Defense under President Truman. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, sharing a platform with Ike, the GOP candidate during the 1952 Presidential campaign, denounced Marshall as a “pinko” fellow traveler of the communists. Eisenhower said nothing.
Harry Truman, who had tried to steer the ’52 Democratic nomination to Ike, never forgave him. (Truman thought Eisenhower a hypocrite as Marshall, a great man, had not only been his patron during WWII but intervened when Ike was having an affair, forbidding him from divorcing his wife Mamie — the future First Lady — which would have wrecked Ike’s career.)
On his part, Ike denounced Earl Warren — whom he himself had appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — to his face for the latter Warren Court decisions, rendered after the tide of McCarthyism had ebbed, that allowed the U.S. Communist Party to operate publicly again.
Live by the Sword
Live by the sword, die by the sword. Barack Obama won the Democratic Presidential nomination as the anti-war candidate, then adopted all of George W. Bush’s war hawk policies — policies he criticized and ran against to get his index finger through the big brass ring. Once elected, Obama did a 180 degree turn as regards his military policies, although this shouldn’t be surprising, seeing as he had articulated a “Get Tough on Pakistan” policy that he didn’t shy away from during the campaign.
Perhaps the most startling development in the evolution of Obama from dove to hawk (which took about 15 seconds in terms of “Inside the Beltway” time even BEFORE he was inaugurated) was his decision to keep Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, as his war chief.
Since the rise of the two party system during the Andrew Jackson years, a new President keeping the Defense Secretary (formerly the Secretary of War) from an opposing party is unprecedented. As well as keeping Gates on in his cabinet, Obama did not do what was expected of him by his own party nd cull the GOP political operatives from the Dept. of Defense. These supporters of George W. Bush & Dick Cheney’s bellicose defense policies were allowed to remain in place.
Obama heated up the war in Afghanistan, giving in to McChrystal’s publc demand for more troops, a prior act of insubordination that likely should have got him the sack. The commander-in-chief gave the general his troops, then tied the hands of the forces there, limiting the use of deadly force (in a guerrilla war!) so as not to have nasty publicity pop up in the press about American “atrocities.”
In effect, the President, engendered McChrystal’s current insubordination by doing nothing when the general went political last year, going over the head of his commander-in-chief to appeal to the press for a boost in troop levels. No wonder why General McChrystal feels he enjoys immunity and is emboldened to take on the Obama publicly by ridiculing all the President’s men. (He left the direct dissing of his commander-in-chief to his subordinates.)
McChrystal is a man who trucks in physical power and courage; it is not just an abstract political game with him. And the general senses weakness in his commander-in-chief. The effect is, Colonel Cathcart-like, he has dealt both himself and his President black eyes. Even if Obama sacks McChrystal, it won’t be a feather in his cap.
Barack Obama, in his failure to control the military brass (from his obsequiousness to the military-industrial-congressional complex he campaigned against) has shown himself — once again — to be a weakling. This is a worse “black eye” than the one dealt him by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf.
BLT: The Blog of the Legal Times, Supreme Court Upholds ‘Material Support’ Law
Fox News, Why Obama Won’t Fire McChrystal
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1961), p. 180
New York Times, Excerpts From Rolling Stone’s McChrystal Profile; McChrystal Is Summoned to Washington Over Remarks
Reuters, Top aide to General McChrystal resigns
Yahoo! News, High court upholds anti-terror law prized by Obama