Joseph Heller satirizes, among other matters, red tape and bureaucracy in his first novel, Catch-22. The novel concerns itself with a World War II bombardier named Yossarian who suddenly realizes the danger of his position and tries various means to extricate himself from further missions. Yossarian is driven crazy by the Germans, who keep shooting at him when he drops bombs on them, and by his American superiors, who seem less concerned about winning the war than they are about getting promoted.
Heller spent eight years writing Catch-22, is a former student at three universities–New York, Columbia and Oxford–and a former teacher at Pennsylvania State College. From 1942 to 1945 he served as a combat bombardier in the Twelfth Air Force and was stationed on the island of Corsica where he flew over 60 combat missions. That experience provided the groundwork for this novel. (Way, 120) (Usborne)
The protagonist and hero of the novel is John Yossarian, a captain in the Air Force and a lead bombardier in his squadron, but he hates the war. During the latter half of World War II, Yossarian is stationed with his Air Force squadron on the island of Pianosa, near the Italian coast and the Mediterranean Sea.
(Heller) The squadron is thrown thoughtlessly into brutal combat situations and bombing runs on which it is more important for them to capture a good aerial photograph of an explosion than to destroy their target. Their colonels continually raise the number of missions they are required to fly before being sent home so that no one is ever sent home.
Heller’s satire targets a variety of bureaucrats, the military-industrial complex, and the business ethic and economic arrangements of American society. Humor rising out of the crazy logic of modern warfare hits squarely on the mark. (Hicks 32). The following passage demonstrates the humor and enlightens the reader about the book’s title and the major cause of
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. ” Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy, ” Doc Daneeka said. ” He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground him. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
Most of the supporting characters in Catch-22 are cardboard figures that are only distinctive to the reader by their inane obsessions. Each lives with a particularly contorted view of the war in which he believes that he can function in the world as he pleases and that his dealings will achieve his objectives. (Kennard 83) The fantastically powerful mess officer, Milo controls an international black market syndicate and is revered in obscure corners all over the world.
He ruthlessly chases after profit and bombs his own men as part of a contract with Germany. Milo insists that everyone in the squadron will benefit from being part of the syndicate, and that “everyone has a share.” The ambitious, unintelligent colonel in charge of Yossarian’s squadron, Colonel Cathcart, wants to be a general. He tries to impress his superiors by bravely volunteering his men for dangerous combat duty whenever he gets the chance. He continually raises the number of combat missions required of the men before they can be sent home.
Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer, is the supreme champion of the profit motive and free enterprise. He knows how to buy eggs for 7 cents and to sell them at a profit for 5 cents. He contrives with Axis agents to bomb his own airfield when the Germans make him a reasonable offer: cost plus 6 per cent.
He does this because he desperately needs more funds in his misguided quest to corner the Egyptian cotton market. Milo’s loyalties lay in general with capitalistic enterprise and specifically with M & M Enterprises. He lives by the principle that “what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country,” despite the diametrically opposed arrangement of his position and his philosophy. (Seltzer 298-99)
Colonel Cathcart tries to scheme his way ahead; he thinks of successful actions as “feathers in his cap” and unsuccessful ones as “black eyes.” For example, as the commanding officer, he keeps raising the number of missions a man has to fly before becoming eligible for leave back to the US, and this number keeps increasing as the men keep going out and coming back from their bombing runs. The reasoning behind this is sound: experienced pilots have a better chance of surviving and accomplishing their mission than do green airmen.
However, his motivation is not. Yossarian and his friends endure a nightmarish, absurd existence defined by bureaucracy and violence: they are inhuman resources in the eyes of their blindly ambitious superior officers. Because Cathcart cannot identify for sure what the higher headquarter generals think and because they themselves loathe and oppose each other, Cathcart’s “feathers” keep turning into “black eyes.” (Lindberg 231-258)
Still, no one but Yossarian seems to realize that there is a war going on; everyone thinks he is crazy when he insists that millions of people are trying to kill him. Yossarian is unique because he takes the whole war personally–rather than being swayed by national ideals or abstract principles, Yossarian is furious that his life is constantly in danger, and not as a result of his own misdeeds. His powerful desire to live has led him to the conclusion that millions of people are out to get him, and he has decided either to live forever or, ironically, die trying. In the end, he takes a possibly morally suspect, but psychologically honest choice left to him by deserting to Sweden. (Merrill 139-52)
Yossarian loses his nerve for war. He is placed in ridiculous, absurd, desperate, and tragic circumstances–he sees friends die and disappear, his squadron bombed by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals who bravely volunteer their men for the most perilous battle. The paradoxical law called Catch-22, the mechanism behind this military’s abnormalities, haunts him. In the end, Yossarian decides to save his own life by deserting the army; he turns his back on the dehumanizing cold machinery of the military, and ultimately, and finally, rejects the rule of Catch-22.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961
Hicks, Granville. “Medals for Madness.” Saturday Review. 44.40 (October 7, 1961)
Kennard, Jean E. “Joseph Heller: At War with Absurdity.” MOSAIC IV/3 (University of Manitoba, 1971)
Lindberg, Gary. “Playing for Real – The Confidence Man in American Literature.” Oxford University Press (1982)
Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22. Studies in American Fiction. 14.2 (1986)
Seltzer, Leon F. “Milo’s ‘Culpable Innocence’: Absurdity as Moral Insanity in ‘Catch-22.'” Papers on Language and Literature. 15.3 (1979)
Usborne, David. “Joseph Heller, Master of Black Satire.” Independent News. (Dec 14, 1999): 2pp. Online. Internet. Feb 12 2000. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/World/Americas/heller141299.shtml
Way, Brian. “Formal Experiment and Social Discontent: Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.” The Penguin Companion to American Literature. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury, Eric Mottram, and Jean Franco.