Joseph Heller Moments

Culture Watch

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On this page we'll keep track of moments that sound like they are straight out of a Joseph Heller book. Feel free to submit your own suggestions by posting a comment below.

Ya Think?

Headline in the NYT on May 3, 2003, p. A10:

"Baghdad Hospitals Face A Crisis, Groups Warn U.S."

Saddam? You Keep an Eye on Him. We're too Busy.

In the NYT on April 30, 2003 Dexter Filkins reported from Baghdad about an Iraqi named Qyes who claimed to know where Saddam Hussein was hiding. American military officials on the scene believed Qyes's information was sound and prepared to dispatch a team of commandos. But then came word from officials higher up not to go. Why? No explanation was offered, but Qyes was told he should continue watching the house in which he believed Saddam was living. According to the Times:

[Qyes] said the Americans had told him they were not able to conduct such surveillance on their own, because it would be too conspicuous.

He has been watching closely: on Wednesday, he said, one of the bodyguards left the house, carrying a black bag."The Americans told me they cannot watch the house," Mr. Qyes said."I am watching the house. I want to get Saddam Hussein."

NYT (April 30, 2003)

The Jews Looted the Museums

Teshreen columnist Nabil Salih, who is based in Syria:

The [Israeli] Mossad sent its agents to destroy the antiquities in the National Museum [in Baghdad] in retaliation for the Babylonian captivity. The Iraqis lost an autocracy and gained an occupation, and the next day [they lost] their future, as part of the Likud plan... Uncle Sam wants to spread his democracy in the Afghan way - that is, letting the dogs bark on empty stomachs. This is the democracy of the poor, marketed by the democracy of the rich.

Of Course, It's Your Country.

NYT, April 16, 2003, regarding the talks in Ur between Iraqi leaders and American officials:

Mr. Bush's envoy to the meeting, Zalmay Khalilzad, sought to allay fears that the United States would seek to dominate the process [of creating a new governing authority].

"We have no intention of ruling Iraq," he said."We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values."

NYT, April 20, 2003:

The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.

American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.

But Why Don't They Trust Us?

NYT, October 30, 2002:

Four videos about American Muslims are part of major campaign to sell United States to skeptical--in places, hostile--Muslim world; campaign is work of Under Secretary of State Charlotte Beers, former Madison Avenue advertising executive; videos tell stories of American Muslim doctors, lawyers, teachers, bakers, medics and firemen; theory underpinning videos, and newspaper ads and radio spots that will accompany them, is that US is misunderstood place; message implies that America recognizes Islam as important religion and one of fastest-growing in America ....

NYT, April 18, 2003:

The Pentagon will proceed with a Good Friday religious service by the Rev. Franklin Graham, despite objections from some Muslim groups that he has called Islam"a very evil and wicked religion," officials said today.

Mr. Graham, a Christian evangelist, was invited to make an appearance at the Pentagon by some Defense Department employees. The son of the Rev. Billy Graham, Mr. Graham has spoken at the Pentagon on previous occasions and gave the invocation at President Bush's inauguration.

"God Is Great"

Robert Fisk, reporting for the Guardian from Baghdad (April 17, 2003):

At night on every one of the Shia Muslim barricades in Sadr City, there are 14 men with automatic rifles. Even the US Marines in Baghdad are talking of the insults being flung at them."Go away! Get out of my face!" an American soldier screamed at an Iraqi trying to push towards the wire surrounding an infantry unit in the capital yesterday. I watched the man's face suffuse with rage."God is Great! God is Great!" the Iraqi retorted.

"Fuck you!"

"They're Not Grateful"

Daviod Rohde, reporting in the NYT about the firefight in Mosul that left at least 10 Iraqis dead:

Outside the hospital, as an American jet roared a few hundred feet overhead and hospital workers glanced up fearfully, Dr. Ramadhani criticized American tactics. "This is terrorism!" he shouted, as the windows of the hospital rattled. "We are scared. What about the children? What about the sick people?"

A few feet away, an American Special Forces soldier guarding the hospital said Iraqis misunderstood American actions here. "The marines took fire and had to return it," he said. The low-flying planes, he said, were to deter attacks.

"It's a show of force, but people don't understand it," said the soldier, who did not want to be identified. "They're not grateful."

NYT (April 16, 2003)


Frank Rich, writing in the NYT:

The president's mother told Diane Sawyer she would watch"none" of TV's war coverage because"90 percent" of it would be speculative. Mrs. Bush continued:"Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it's gonna happen? . . . It's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

NYT (April 13, 2003)

Kill All Suspected Terrorists. Yep. That's What It Says.

 This is a picture of a demonstrator during a pro-war rally held in Kansas City, Missouri on the afternoon of Sunday March 30, 2003.  Click on the picture for a larger size.  Photo by John Stucky.

Cyberspace Celebrity

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- A member of Saddam Hussein's vanquished regime has sprung up as an unlikely hero in cyberspace on a Web site embraced by both supporters and foes of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Television news junkies transfixed by daily briefings by Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf are now logging onto a few days-old Web site [] featuring his finest invective against U.S. and British"infidels."

The site describes itself as a" coalition effort of bloodthirsty hawks and ineffectual doves" united in their admiration for al-Sahaf and his pronouncements, such as:"I now inform you that you are too far from reality."

Among al-Sahaf's now-famous declarations was:"There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!"

CNN (April 11, 2003)

It Was Just Like a Video Game. Wait, Wait, It Is a Video Game!

Julia Day, writing in the Guardian:

Japanese electronics giant Sony has taken an extraordinary step to cash in on the war in Iraq by patenting the term 'Shock and Awe' for a computer game…. It applied to register the term as a trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office on March 21 - just one day after war started. It wants to use it for computer and video games, as well as a broadband game played both locally and globally via the internet among PlayStation users

Guardian (April 10, 2003)

Let Freedom Ring

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense, commenting on widespread reports of looting in Baghdad:

"Freedom's untidy. And free people are free to commit mistakes, and to commit crimes."

NYT (April 12, 2003)

Beirut? Let's Hope Not

Headline on MSNBC, the day after Baghad fell:

"Fierce firefights continued in some Beirut neighborhoods."

MSNBC (April 10, 2003)

Saddam? Saddam Who?

On April 10, 2003 Reuters reported that the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Aldouri, admitted"Everything is over. There is no government that I represent. I am representing my country right now." He added,"the game is over."

Aldouri distanced himself from the regime he has loyally represented. He told Reuters,"I have no relationship with Saddam.

Reuters (April 10, 2003)

Nobody Reads Them

The Center for Public Integrity has reported that nine of the thirty members of the Defense Policy Board--a group of outside experts who advise the Pentagon--have ties to corporations that have won more than $76 billion in defense contracts over the last two years.

Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center, was asked on a television show if the members of the board had to disclose their possible conflicts of interests. Yes, he answered, they file statements with the government. But the statements are classified and"nobody reads them."

Interview on Bill Moyers's show,"Now" on PBS (March 28, 2003)

Who You Gonna Believe, Me or Your Own Eyes?

John F. Burns, writing in the NYT:

As for the government, it showed no sign of wavering. Less than two hours after the American incursion began, the Iraqi information minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, was at the television networks'"stand-up" positions on the second-story roof of the Palestine Hotel's conference center, to insist that the reporters had not seen what they thought.

If reporters believed that they had witnessed an American drive deep into the heart of the capital, Mr. Sahhaf, in the green uniform and black beret of the ruling Baath Party, wished to disabuse them.

He implied that they, and American military commanders, were hallucinating about the tanks.

"They are really sick in their minds," he said."They said they entered with 65 tanks into the center of the capital. I inform you that this is too far from the reality. This story is part of their sickness. The real truth is that there was no entry of American or British troops into Baghdad at all." The truth, he said, was that the Americans had pushed only a short distance out of the airport into a suburb where they had been surrounded by Iraqi troops, with"three-quarters of them slaughtered."

American television images of soldiers surrounded by the marbled sumptuousness of Mr. Hussein's palace, Mr. Sahhaf said, were shot in"the reception hall" of the airport."They are just cheap liars!" he said.

To that, Mr. Sahhaf added a genial word of advice for reporters."Just make sure to be accurate," he said."Don't repeat their lies. Otherwise you will play a marketing role for the Americans."

NYT (April 8, 2003)


Jim Dwyer, reporting from Karbala, April 6, 2003, after Americans began entering the city:

Along rural roads east of town, a procession of people on foot, bicycle, and donkey cart all carried the same cargo: fistfuls of live, though not lively, chickens.

A few of the travelers even used the birds as white flags, waving them at American troops.

Chickens that expired in the heat, which hit 106 degrees today, were discarded by the dozens along the roads. The spectacle was mildly baffling, with more than a few Americans assuming that transporting live chickens was some sort of custom on Sundays.

Not at all, one of the residents explained to military officials.

"He told us that one of Saddam Hussein's sons owns a chicken farm or something down the road, and the people went in there and liberated themselves some chickens," said Col. Joe Anderson, the commander of the Second Brigade.

NYT (April 7, 2003)

This Will Make Me Rich

Jayson Blair and Mark Landler, writing about the gifts and book offers that poured in after Pfc. Jessica Ryan was rescued:

A book agent from New York who has contacted the Lynch family but does not want to be named for competitive reasons, said:"This has the makings of an amazing story that could not only make them rich, but make me rich." The"symbolic importance of her rescue is not only an amazing story, but it single-handily turned around the mood of the war."

NYT (April 5, 2003)

Hit Song"War"

On April 2, as American tanks rolled toward Baghdad, the singer Edwin Starr died at the age of sixty-one. He was most famous for the song,"War," which appeared in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. The song denounced that war as good for"absolutely nothing":

War has shattered many young men's dreams,
We've got no place for it today.
They say we must fight to keep our freedom,
But Lord, there's just got to be a better way.

NYT (April 4, 2003)

In a Funk

Laurie Goodstein, writing in the NYT, about Stephen E. Funk, a Marine who went AWOL when his unit was called up for service in the war in Iraq in February:

"War wasn't a part of it at all for me. I never even thought about it," said Mr. Funk, from Seattle, who plans to turn himself in for punishment today at his base in San Jose, Calif., for being absent without leave."I thought it would be like the Boy Scouts."

NYT (April 1, 2003)


April 3, 2003 LA Times:"U.S. forces will 'lay siege' to the capital."

April 3, 2003 NYT:"GOAL OF U.S.: AVOID A SIEGE."

Source: Slate

The Rescue

On April 2, 2003, American Special Operations forces rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch from Nasiriya, Iraq. She was captured March 23 when the troops she was with made a wrong turn off a highway. She is from Palestine (West Virginia).

NYT, April 2, 2003

The Danger

Jonathan Lewis, 18, who said he enlisted for the benefits, and out of a sense of patriotism, said he figured he had less to fear as a marine in Baghdad than in the streets of Chicago, where he lived for 12 years until his family moved to the south suburbs.

"Being over in Baghdad, you've got a thousand people 100 percent behind you," he said."Around here, who says you can't be going to McDonald's and that's it? Over there, you're part of everybody, you're with your friends and family, you're still safe."

NYT (March 30, 2003)

The Marine

"We had a great day," Sergeant Schrumpf said."We killed a lot of people."

Sergeant Schrumpf said that while most Iraqi soldiers had posed little danger, a small number appeared to be well trained and calm under fire. Some, the sergeant added, wore black suits, described by some Iraqis as the uniform of the Saddam Feydayeen, a militia of die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

Both marines said they were most frustrated by the practice of some Iraqi soldiers to use unarmed women and children as shields against American bullets. They called the tactic cowardly but agreed that it had been effective. Both Sergeant Schrumpf and Corporal McIntosh said they had declined several times to shoot at Iraqi soldiers out of fear they might hit civilians.

"It's a judgment call," Corporal McIntosh said."If the risks outweigh the losses, then you don't take the shot."

But in the heat of a firefight, both men conceded, when the calculus often warps, a shot not taken in one set of circumstances may suddenly present itself as a life-or-death necessity.

"We dropped a few civilians," Sergeant Schrumpf said,"but what do you do?"

To illustrate, the sergeant offered a pair of examples from earlier in the week.

"There was one Iraqi soldier, and 25 women and children," he said,"I didn't take the shot."

But more than once, Sergeant Schrumpf said, he faced a different choice: one Iraqi soldier standing among two or three civilians. He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.

"I'm sorry," the sergeant said."But the chick was in the way."

NYT (March 29, 2003)

The Prediction

"Their determination was really a surprise to us all," said Brig. Gen. John Kelly of the Marines on Friday."What we were really hoping for was just to go through and everyone would wave flags and all that."

NYT (March 30, 2003)

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More Comments:

Herb Lloyd - 5/3/2003

In my opinion expect anything from George, and none of it will make sense..nor will it be true. Herb Lloyd

Alan G. Archer - 5/2/2003

You wrote:
"Fire fighters there locked a bunch of girls in a burning building and let them die because they were not properly covering their faces. Has the American ever said so much as a breath’s worth of criticism to Saudi Arabia? None that has been loud enough for the international community to hear."

It was not the firefighters, but the Saudi religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, that doomed the schoolgirls in March 2002. (URL:;

From Tarek Al-Issawi's story for the Associated Press and published in The Washington Times:
"In 1990, at the height of the Gulf war, religious policemen attacked American servicewomen who walked around in shorts in public in the capital, Riyadh.
"A complaint by the U.S. government prompted Riyadh's governor, Prince Salman, to instruct the religious police to stop beating American women for dress-code violations."

Parrish Ralston - 4/29/2003

Let’s not start acting all righteous like America’s main intention is to save these people from a terrible dictator. In the 80's when it could be said that Saddam was perhaps doing the worst damage to humanity he was still on America’s “buddy list”. When he was dropping chemical weapons on Iraq Mr. Rumsfeld himself was shaking hands with Saddam in hopes to acquire a pipe line to transport over a million gallons of oil to tankers daily. When Saddam’s attacks on Iran were getting controversial we asked Saddam to please stop buying American chemical weapons because it was “embarrassing”. Hmm, I could have thought of a few stronger words to use in that situation. We didn’t do anything in 1988 when he tore through 60 Kurdish towns and gassed everyone in sight, yet that particular incident is cited constantly as one of Saddam’s greatest crimes.

Since the Gulf War Saddam’s rage has been quite subdued, and though he is by no means a nice guy, he looks more appealing to most than the hugely traditional monarchy that is in control of Saudi Arabia. They have the same typical dictator flaws; killing off all their political opposition, letting the majority of the population live in poverty while the few that are in power are disgustingly rich. On top of that women there have no independence whatsoever, they can’t even walk around in the street in absence of their husbands without running the risk of being beaten or stoned to death. Fire fighters there locked a bunch of girls in a burning building and let them die because they were not properly covering their faces. Has the American ever said so much as a breath’s worth of criticism to Saudi Arabia? None that has been loud enough for the international community to hear.

And has all this really been worth it? Was it worth billions of government dollars and America’s international reputation? Was it worth the hundreds of American lives and an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 of Iraqi lives? And for what? Do you really think we can place a democracy in a country that is already telling us to get out? A country with three factions of people that don’t exactly get along. A country that is surrounded by many other autocracies. America has failed at the easier task of putting governments in other countries; it’s pretty easy to be skeptical. Oh, and where in the world are all those precious weapons of mass destruction that we swore up and down that Saddam would one day use in an act of terrorism, though he won’t even use them to defend his little kingdom? America is going to look like the idiot of the century if we can’t even find the main reason we used to justify doing all this.

Jon Koppenhoefer - 4/17/2003

The Bush Administration has added another lesson in 'faith-based logic', this time the use of evidence found after the fact to justify action taken on an assumption, i.e., 'faith-based knowledge' that something was true in the first place.

For months Bush and his cohorts have been 'certain' that WMD exist in Iraq, and for some time the 'existence' of these weapons was the primary reason for invading Iraq. The invasion was launched with no evidence in hand, leading me to assume that the claims were false but useful excuses to invade. Some did claim that 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' as if this were some kind of bizarre 'proof' Bush was right about WMD in the first place. (No wonder Bush got such poor grades in school.)

So, now that the administration wants to send 1,500 analysts to sift through a building full of paperwork, in an effort to 'prove' that WMD existed in Iraq, the point is lost on most rational people. Bush invaded without proof, and that is all we need to know about the matter. Finding proof now, after the fact, means nothing about his rightness, but says volumes about his self-righteousness.

God save us from this kind of reasoning in public policy. It's what leads Bush to execute like there's no tomorrow, because, in his words, "I believe it deters crime."

And some kings believed they were divine.

Les - 4/17/2003

"It's it a bit arrogant to ask soldiers who have been on the move for three weeks in combat with little access to the international news media to know exactly where in a town they have just entered for the very first time the international journalists are staying?"

Actually, it's quite realistic with the technology at their disposal. But the problem wasn't just that the military had already promised the journalists that they'd be safe from coalition attacks at that hotel, but that the soldiers first claimed to have been shot at from the hotel. After the journalists staying there reported no gunfire whatsoever from their position, the military said that they thought they saw sniper scopes in the windows (had they been informed that the hotel's residents were journalists as was promised, they might have figured there would be some cameras in the windows).

Suetoinus - 4/10/2003

"But the journalists on the scene and their media companies scoffed at the military's explanation. They argued that it was well known that most of the TV crews and newspaper correspondents remaining in Baghdad were living and working out of the Palestine Hotel."

It's it a bit arrogant to ask soldiers who have been on the move for three weeks in combat with little access to the international news media to know exactly where in a town they have just entered for the very first time the international journalists are staying?

Jean Godden - 4/9/2003

"Officials at U. S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said they regretted yesterday's deaths (of three journalists), but added that their forces were exercising a legitimate right to self-defense after coming under fire from Iraqi soldiers along the Tigris River in central Baghdad.
"'This coalition does not target journalists,'" U.S. Army Brig.Gen. Vincent Brooks said at the Central Command daily briefing.'We don't know every place that journalists are operating on the battlefield. It's a dangerous place indeed.'
"A U.S. army colonel told the Associated Press that the Iraqis had fired rocket-propelled grenades from the front of the Palestine Hotel. He said the tank crew had fired back at a balcony where they saw binoculars.
"Brooks said at the briefing that U.S. troops had initially reported coming under fire from the hotel lobby. He blamed the Iraqi regime for using residential areas of the city for using residential areas of the city for military purposes.
"But the journalists on the scene and their media companies scoffed at the military's explanation. They argued that it was well known that most of the TV crews and newspaper correspondents remaining in Baghdad were living and working out of the Palestine Hotel.
"They also questioned why the tank would shoot at the 14th floor after allegedly coming under fire from Iraqi forces at ground level." -- Chicago Tribune

jerome foster - 4/9/2003

for a, possibly postmodern heller moment: a picture in the ny or la times of a father giving a marine son a book as a going away gift. The book: Catch 22.

Wesley Smart - 4/9/2003

"Friendly fire deaths lower than in previous war" - Knight Ridder.

"As Tactics Change and Battle Lines Blur, Risk of Being Killed by Own Side Increases" - New York Times.

(With apologies to Andrew Sullivan, from whose site I plucked it)

Matt Norman - 4/9/2003

This is taken from an April 9, 2003 story by Lucy Fielder of Reuters:

Rabat perfume shop owner Lahoucine Lanait described Saddam as the Arab world's "best dictator."

Suetonius - 4/8/2003

I think you have to take a serious discount of media headlines and reporting if the authors have little or no practical knowledge of the military. This is, after all, a group of people who referred to the 507th Maintenance Company as everything from a unit to a division.

We would expect as much from our students in writing their papers, so why don't we apply such standards to the media?

Richard Dyke - 3/31/2003

Mr. Cramer should be reminded that the U.S. is not fighting missionaries. The Iraq regime is handsdown (without dispute) guilty of slaughtering thousands of its opponents like so many pigs--including the slaughter of helpless Kurdish children. This regime sports a leader who has openly encouraged on the world stage the deliberate murder of Israeli CIVILIANS, offering $25,000 to families whose children blow themselves up to kill others. There is no good karma to come out of this, one way or the other. Evidently Mr. Cramer thinks we ought to bury our heads in the sand---only to hear a new round of criticism that we did not act when another ugly atrocity is finally perpetrated upon us--like 9/11. The UN is famous for burying their heads in the sand. They sat and talked and talked as Serbs murdered Albanians in Kosovo and as Hutus butchered half a million Tutsis
in Rwanda. They knew about it and never did a thing about either incident. The best way to get INaction is to create a bureaucracy to study and talk.

Couch potatoes have good reasons for supporting our troops, Mr. Cramer.

Richard Dyke - 3/31/2003

I was reading what Sgt. Schrumpf said about the unfortunate killing of civilians. It reminds me that "War is Hell," as General William Sherman said so many years ago. If a soldier tries too hard to avoid hitting civilians, he will probably be killed himself. In combat, you have to "get real." As one Vietnam vet told me, they had to shoot some civilians and ask permission after the fact.

hans cramer - 3/31/2003

Young men and women join to serve their country, which is honorable. Then after being trained to fight against aggressors, the pentagon contractors manipulate our government to find a dumping ground for their "products", bombs, cruise missles which are great repeat business and all the contracts to rebuild the carnage laden buildings and---hey---we might as well take over the black gold fields too. The Iraqi foreign minister did say before the attacks started "You don't need to start a war to get the oil, I'm inviting Chevron/Texaco, BP and the others to just call." Of course they didn't or could not. Come on you leaders, do the right thing and call off the slaughter. Win yourselves some good karma. Also, why do so many couch popatoes support this devastation with "remember 911!!!" Do they forget the Saudi guys used boxcutters and Boeings - not some gas or bomb to hit the WTC. Note I said Saudi, Saudi not Iraqi.