Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is a fictitious novel that depicts life on an American bomber squadron on Pianosa, an island off the coast of Italy, during the closing years of World War II. A bombardier by the name of Yossarian, the main character in the story, is joined by many others to create a comic drama unlike any other. But aside from the entertainment, Heller uses Catch-22 to satirize many aspects of everyday life that consist of hypocrisy, corruption, and insanity. From the laziness of policeman to the fake happiness brought about by money, the novel is painted with a great number of points targeted against the faults of modern society.
However, along with these smaller targets, a majority of the Heller’s satire in the novel is aimed specifically at the imperious bureaucracy in the military, the current nature of man, and the corruption of religion; all of which accentuate the senselessness of war itself. Through Yossarian, who is conscience of what is sane, along with characters who are not, Heller emphasizes his ridicule by making what is appropriate seem peculiar and what is ludicrous seem common, ultimately giving the reader a viewpoint that proves astonishingly effective.
One of the few main targets of Heller’s satire is the bureaucracy and unfairness of this system within the establishment of the military. Because the book is set in a military base during the war, Heller uses characters and situations to manifest his ridicule upon the higher ranked men who are responsible for this. Colonel Cathcart, the commanding officer in Yossarian’s regiment, is obsessed throughout the book with becoming a general and that is what his character desires to achieve throughout the story. He is also joined by his lieutenant colonel, Colonel Korn, who is obsessed with being a full colonel.
But in the novel, these obsessions become relentless and higher ranking officers such as Korn and Cathcart yield power to their advantage for their own ambitions, thus stripping away democratic freedoms of the lower ranking officers such as Yossarian and creating a relentless bureaucracy. Instead of flying the extra missions Colonel Cathcart continuously assigns for his country, Yossarian realizes that it really has nothing to do with the war effort and begs the question, “am I supposed to get my ass shot off just because the colonel wants to be a general? 133).
Yossarian is no longer fighting for himself or his patriotism but instead for some dictating men at the top of the ladder who are using the lives of Yossarian and his friends as pawns for their lavishness. When Yossarian rebels against this system of injustice commanding over him, the narrator states that Milo is ashamed of Yossarian who is “jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” (415). According to Milo, it is not fair to fight for your own justice as an American in the military.
This statement is foolish and is exactly what Heller satirizes in the book; the fact that during war, the freedom and individuality of lower ranking officers are stripped away from them to satisfy the needs of higher ranking officers. Yossarian later discovers through Major Danby that Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn “can prepare as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion,” which is another example of the bureaucracy allowing men to cease liberties in order to incite more power for personal use (452).
When continuing his discussion with Major Danby at the end of the book, Yossarian uses an analogy to indicate to the Major just what it is like being controlled by higher powers. After Danby wishes he was a cucumber or some kind of vegetable so he did not have to make important decisions, Yossarian states that if he was a “good one” then “they’d cut you off in your prime and slice you up for a salad” and if he was a “poor one” then “they’d let you rot and use you for fertilizer to help the good ones grow” (457).
This reveals to the reader exactly how “they” (meaning high ranking officers) carelessly use the soldiers in combat missions and the only important decisions Major Danby discusses with Yossarian are decisions involving the dispensable lives of the soldiers and regardless of how many die, Cathcart and Korn still remain on top. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, they see themselves “risking their lives” for America, but they do not even go on combat missions and all they are really only responsible for is shuffling papers.
Through these characters, Heller satirizes how corrupt and unfair that system is, where essentially random men are called upon to control other random men in an dictatorial bureaucracy. Human nature is yet another target of Heller’s satire in the novel and is seen throughout many different characters. Heller explains to the reader, through this method of satire just how selfish and greedy men are and become during the war. Chief White Halfoat recollects his past life in the States where him and the rest of his Native American kinsmen would not be allowed into certain hotels because of their ethnicity.
He states to Yossarian in a serious and convicted manner that “racial prejudice is a terrible thing” and that it is “terrible to treat a decent, loyal Indian like a nigger, kike, wop or spic” (53). Chief White Halfoat is against racism but refuses to have an open mind toward other races and only cares about Indians, which results in Chief White Halfoat being a racist himself. This is seen in modern American society today and Heller uses the Chief and his ignorant statement to show the absurd selfishness of man.
Toward the end of the book, another instance comes up in which Heller shows the carelessness of man when it comes to his pride and greed. Aarfy is seen raping a girl in Rome and throws her out of his apartment window to her death. Yossarian sees this and is appalled by what has happened. When he reaches the apartment room, he begins shouting at Aarfy in a skeptical and accusing manner and asks why he did not just buy off a prostitute if he wanted pleasure. To this Aarfy brags that he “never paid for it in his life” (428).
Aarfy is yet another man who has such an excessive pride in his personal accomplishment of not paying for sex that he ends up raping a girl to have sex with him instead. In his mind, he keeps his pride in doing so but it is obvious that rape is a far more ignominious than paying a prostitute for sex. Men generally do make the mistake of holding their pride above all else resulting in a carelessness that makes them look even worse and Heller uses Aarfy to satirize that part of human beings.
Finally, Milo represents all that is selfish and greedy in man as he is continuously thinking of only himself. When his stock in Egyptian cotton inflates and he has a surplus of the product, he goes to see Yossarian who is naked in a tree watching the funeral of Snowden from a distance. The whole time, instead of giving any concern to others and paying any respects to the funeral that is going on just a few hundred feet away, he continuously chatters away about himself and his business.
When Snowden’s coffin is lowered into the grave, Milo shudders violently and says, “I can’t watch it,” but instead of referring to the funeral, which is what any sane man would do in that situation, he continues to say, “I just can’t sit here and watch while those mess halls let my syndicate die” (274). This predicament along with the dialogue is a demented one because of the emphasized disrespect and carelessness Milo shows.
Heller uses these characters to exaggerate their greed and parsimony by making it seem so common in the story, thus becoming a satire on human nature. The last concept that Heller focuses a lot of his satire is on the shame in religion and how it is used so corruptly. Instead of using religion for virtuosity and righteousness, modern society uses it in shameful and negative practices. For example, demagogues are profuse in world of today who thrive off religion to build more and more power.
When Colonel Cathcart summons the chaplain to his office to discuss the idea of saying prayers before each mission, he finds out from the chaplain that there are no “humorous” prayers “that stays away from waters and valleys and God” so he decides to “get some new ones” (202). Colonel Cathcart seeks to get in The Saturday Evening Post to make himself look better by shaping religion to his personal benefit. In the bigger picture, he is merely using the concept of religion and faith to get him promoted to general. Along with being used in shameful manners, religion is also seen as being used as an excuse for the colonel’s laziness.
When the chaplain mentions with the utmost sincerity that Yossarian is unstable and unhappy and that something should be done to help him out and give him hope, Colonel Cathcart thinks about a solution “in a heavy silence for a few moments” and then says to the chaplain, “tell him to trust in God” (207). This turns out to be the resolution the colonel put so much thought in as he ends up disrespecting religion as a whole by using it to evade more work and thought. Likewise, Heller uses the belief in God to show the differing morals between each man. To Colonel Cathcart, “atheism is against the law” and is “un-American” to be one (203).
He views people who have a religious faith as better than atheists, who he assumes has no morals because of their lack in belief. Contrary to this conception, the men who have a belief in God often times use it as an excuse to feel like it is morally accepted to do obviously immoral things such as using men to improve selfish ambitions. Yossarian on the other hand sees the God that everyone believes in as a “clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed” and asks “what in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements?
Why in the world did He ever create pain? ” (189). Yossarian goes on to create his own morals without the kind of “divine approval” that everyone is so worried about and he ends up being one of the most virtuous and morally correct men in the story. Heller uses the idea of the protagonist being against God, which is usually uncommon is novels, to show that religion has in fact provoked many immoral things in society. In the end, it is clear that Heller is commenting on the evil that comes out of war.
Not only because of the violence, but because of all the things wrong with the way they are established and positioned. There is a myriad of pointless constitutions in the military that result in even more death and disaster. Ex-P. F. C. Wintergreen is stationed to dig up holes and fill that back up continuously, and he is accepting of this roll because he states that it is part of the war effort, when it obviously has nothing to do with winning the war in any way possible.
This is just an example of the senselessness war invokes as there are situations when men find themselves not fighting to win the war, because the war is close to being ended, but instead to save their lives. And as a result, the true flaws of society come out. Heller emphasizes the unjust bureaucracy of the military, the greed and selfishness of man, and the corruption in religion through many different characters who emphasize what is wrong by making it seem right, creating a deeply affective and wonderfully entertaining satire.