Catch 22, written by Joseph Heller and published in 1961, is an American novel, set in the Second World War. It has a distinctive style, which immediately differentiates it from other popular war books and makes it a testament to the postmodern movement of the 1960’s, in which many like minded authors, musicians, artists, and other prominent forms of media artists followed a culture of rejection of traditional and authoritarian values and conventions born from objective truth. The concept of Postmodernism has spanned over a century and been the cause of much controversy in its bout with traditional classifications; Hence, Catch 22’s mixed reception from its readers. The plotline revolves around the protagonist, Yossarian; a clear cut individualist, whose attempts to escape the clutches of the American war machine is often barred by “Catch-22”. Meanwhile, all of Yossarian’s friends and colleagues begin to desert the squadron, or die as a result of the American war time bureaucracy. The book has received a largely, a polarised reception from its readers, with many sharply criticising the idea, and others praising it substantially. It is therefore, arguably the most, if not, one of the most controversial novels of the century. It’s criticism and political messages make the novel well worth investigation. My research question is as follows: How is the American military bureaucracy in Catch 22 presented? To what extent does their absurdity criticise their hypocrisy?
The lack of communication or miscommunication is a theme that runs right throughout the book, often creating opportunities for humour at the same time, outlining the uselessness of words. The way messages are sent and received, or trickle down the chain of command as it were, often illustrates one way in which the bureaucracy is hypocritical. The conflicting opinions of various officers have a negative effect on the enlisted men. For example, in Clevinger’s trial, Major Metcalf contributes to the discussion, at the anger of the colonel present. “Failure to say “sir” to superior officers when not interrupting them.’ ‘Metcalfâ€¦. You’re a goddamn fool. Do you know that?’â€¦â€¦ ‘Yes sir.’” In this chapter, we learn that the military’s over complications of any matter were often due to conventional forms of address, following every communication.
The first forms of miscommunications are presented in the first chapter of the book, in which Yossarian sits in hospital, given the duty of censoring the letters of enlisted men. Though he initially carries out the responsibility given to him, he begins to find it boring. As a result, he ends up playing games with the letters, blacking out almost random words, causing destruction to the only link the enlisted men have with their loved ones. “he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the.” Despite his resentment of being a victim of miscommunication, he finds joy in editing the letters given to him. His own hypocrisy here highlights that he, unlike Clevinger, is an individualist and follows no traditional moral code, but his own. A parallel can be drawn here between Yossarian and Colonel Cathcart, in the concept that takes actions based on their own selfish needs and desires. Cathcart continuously raises the number of missions and volunteers his squadron for the most dangerous missions in order to achieve military glory and promotion. This is perhaps one problem identified with higher ranking officers, which is the source of the paradoxical status Yossarian is trapped in and part of.
Similarly, Ex PFC Wintergreen is also a middle part of the military centipede. The messages he condemns as “too prolix” are not sent. Ironically, Wintergreen tends to base his judgements on literary merit or other random preferences he has, rather than actual content. “Wintergreen determined the outcome by throwing all communications from General Peckham into the waste basket. He found them too prolix. General Dreedle’s views expressed in less pretentious literary style, pleased ex-PFC Wintergreen and were sped along by him in zealous observance of regulations.” Wintergreen’s determination of what communications
In chapter 15, an example of miscommunication lacks any form of humour. During the bombing of Bologna, Yossarian is unable to communicate to Aarfy the danger that they are in. “‘Get the hell out of my nose! Are you crazy? Get out!’ ‘What?’â€¦ ‘Get out!’â€¦ ‘I still can’t hear you!’” Contrary to the writing styles in the earlier chapters, the tone is grim and desperate, reflecting the effect that bombardier missions have on Yossarian. The state of the military stops appearing comical, and the Heller is able to remind us that the problems in the bureaucracy, such as miscommunication have consequences. This section of the novel is similar to the end of chapter 5, in which Dobs seems to lose his sanity, relaying that Yossarian needs help, “And Snowden lay dying in the back”
The absolute power of bureaucracy is another major theme in the novel, which dictates the life and death of the men. The first, most obvious sign of the military’s absolute power lies within the first example of catch-22, in which Doc Daneeka explains “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” The power of Catch-22 demonstrates that the men have absolutely no control over when they can leave, what they can do, and whether or not they will die. The much later interpretation of this catch is more accurately identified by an Italian lady, who explicitly claims that the military can do whatever they please, and those involved in the war could do nothing to prevent it. The orders passed down from officers are often followed by the characters in a literal manner, regardless of logic, often forming paradoxical and illogical consequences. Once such example is Major Major Major Major’s policy on meetings with others. “I said that Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he’s in his office.” The absurdity of this paradox within the military system depicts the bureaucratic power as unquestionable, no matter how illogical or ridiculous the order. Such cases run throughout the book, and form the essence of catch 22.
Often, the power exercised by the bureaucracy is applied without fair reason or any rational justification. The problem is often compounded by the lack of communication, conflicting orders and objectives. The power of the highly ranked bureaucrats proves to be effective in dispelling any input from the inferiorly ranked officers. Using again, Clevinger’s interrogation as a case study, we find that the officer’s opinions and justifications are useless in swaying the stubborn motives of the Bureaucracy. “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do soâ€¦..These three men who hated [Clevinger] spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunker behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more.” The Clevinger trial condemns the action board, as an active part of the bureaucracy, as stated before, irrational, unreasoning, stubborn and above all, responsible for the suffering of many of those in combat.
On the other hand, the strictness and absurdity of the orders given sometimes play into the hands of the soldiers. In one case, Doc Daneeka “says ‘Give Yossarian all the dried fruit and fruit juices he wants [â€¦] he says he has a liver condition’”. Yossarian abuses this order, and distributes all the fruit he claims amongst his squadron for free, deliberately avoiding eating it himself, so that he can maintain his condition. The absolute power of the bureaucracy, combined with idiocy and corruption both traps the bombardier crews, and creates loopholes for them to exploit.
Insanity is commonly referred to throughout the novel. The men often describe their colleagues as crazy. However, from a postmodernist point of view, by elimination of objective truth, insanity is a different method of applying perceived truths or a different method of perceiving truths. Anybody who appears to have different views are regarded as crazy, however they attempt to rationalise their views. The novel demonstrates the subjectivity of the term “crazy” through conversations exchanged between each of the characters, who often label each other crazy. “When Yossarian tried to warn them, they drew away from him and thought he was crazy. Even Clevinger [â€¦] had told him he was crazy. [â€¦] There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.” If a person fails to conform to the conventions of a society, or fails to act with social grace, they are often considered crazy.
Catch 22 lacks entirely, a universally accepted form of behaviour. In the context of a seemingly unnecessary war, driven by the personal ambitions of incompetent senior officers, the social norm does not exist. It demonstrates the attempts of each character to deal with the responsibilities thrust upon them. With everything to lose, the men respond differently and individually to the war they are forced to fight, which differs significantly from safer societies. To each other, the men appear crazy; but as individuals, they are able to justify to some extent, the reasons for their actions. In this sense, most of the men are in fact sane. From Clevinger’s perspective, Yossarian appears “crazy”, for his individualistic ideals, whilst Doc Daneeka refuses to ground him, as he rationalizes his attempt to escape from the war as a personal concern for his own safety in the face of danger, and concludes that he must be sane. This can be further supported by his refuge in the hospital, and evasive action during flight. On the other hand, Clevenger’s idealistic views on winning the war conflict with Yossarian’s and he is labelled insane because of it. “You are talking about winning the war, and I’m talking about winning the war and staying alive’. [â€¦] ‘And which do you think is more important?’ [..] ‘To whom? [..] Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.’” As a result of each individual having their own set of rules to live by, Heller is able to paint a picture of the war, in which he displays individual interests, rather than a patriotism orientation which determines the action of the military.
Catch 22 as a novel, rebels against traditional traits, re-telling the story from different points of view, mixed chronology, riddled with satire contradictions and various hilarious concepts such as the name of “Major Major Major Major”. The book itself might be considered “insane” in the wider context of conventional narrative styles.
Religion, in catch 22, fails to act as a basis of moral codes for the men. Yossarian agrees with Scheisskopf’s wife that a God does not exist. Even though their perceptions of a possible God disagree, they both reject the idea of the existence of a God. “What in the world was running through his mind when he robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements?” In addition to this, the chaplain had begun to question the existence of god in chapter 26. The rejection of the idea of God is largely caused by the suffering of human kind. The cynical Yossarian outlines why he thinks an existing God would be incompetent. The lack of faith in religion establishes the morale of the men as grave. The fact that the chaplain loses his faith in God is hypocritical in itself, as Christianity requests that people follow the religion with blind faith, regardless of empirical evidence.
The detail of death and violence throughout the novel is a condemnation of the bureaucracy on the effects of war. The gory image of Snowden’s fatal injury at Yossarian’s horror reveals the gritty, gory, deadly side of war. “Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out.” The graphic horror of Snowden’s death, re-occurring consistently throughout the book is a reminder of the consequences of the bureaucracy’s decisions, and a very possible fate that any of the men could fall to, if they continue to fly the increased amount of missions.
When Aarfy is confronted by Yossarian, after having raped Michaela, and thrown her out of the window, his naive lack of sensitivity is once again, revealed. His calm, self-assured confidence in himself and calm behaviour having done this is the most intriguing point of the confrontation. The fact that Aarfy has become so far dehumanized, to the point that he cannot recognise the significance of a murder; explores the consequences of long term exposure to war and violence. Whether Aarfy has been this insensitive since civilian life, or whether he developed this callous reaction to blood is not disclosed to the reader. “‘But you threw her out the window. She’s lying dead in the street.’ ‘She has no right to be there’ Aarfy answered. ‘it’s after curfew.’” A similarity can be drawn with the death of Kid Sampson, in that both Aarfy and McWatt killed in naivety; in McWatt’s case, a stupid plane stunt. Unlike Aarfy, McWatt realises the significance of his actions and commits suicide in guilt, whilst Aarfy does not have the ability to empathise with another human being.
The military priorities of the bureaucracy are continuously exhibited as personal, rather than for the benefit of the war. The men must continuously fly more missions, because as stated many times, “Colonel Cathcart was a brave man, and he never hesitated to volunteer his men for even the most dangerous of missions.” Colonel Cathcart is often seen as the villain of the story, as he is solely responsible for raising the minimum number of missions every single time it is reached, as well as volunteering his men for the bombing of Bologna. “American troops are pushing onto German soil. The Russians have captured back all of Romania. Only yesterday the Greeks in the Eighth Army captured Rimini. The Germans are on the defensive everywhere!” By volunteering more men for missions, even when the Allies have almost won the war, clearly demonstrates Colonel Cathcart’s lust for self-gain, military power, and military prestige. This is more explicitly stated in an exchange between Yossarian and Major Major Major Major. “Anyway, I’ve been told Twenty-Seventh Air Force wants only forty missions and that it’s only his idea to increase it to fifty five [â€¦] We won’t lose. We’ve got more men, more money and more material. There are ten million men in uniform who are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed.” The selfishness of Cathcart’s actions can be drawn parallel with Yossarian’s ideals of self-preservation. In putting personal risks in front of winning the war at the lowest cost, the bureaucrats are being hypocritical, in that they expect the officers and enlisted men to follow orders as part of the war effort on their behalf, whilst the Colonels and Generals hypocritically are not on combat duty themselves, nor are they prioritising winning the war despite putting men at danger. In short, this puts them directly In the light of being hypocritical.
In an exchange of words between Yossarian and Clevinger, Clevinger claims that the soldiers have no right to question the orders of the Generals, whilst Yossarian believes that any he has the right to abstain from any participation in war, and is entitled to protect his life from the danger of war. Clevinger’s argument is based on the concept that flying missions for the colonels is inevitable, as the missions are a necessity to win the war, and somebody must fill the role. Yossarian’s retort is based on his idea that war is a choice. Despite his desire to leave the war effort, the reader see’s his main priority as self-preservation, whilst his character is portrayed with empathy for others. In this way, he is different from Colonel Cathcart.
Milo Minderbind re-occurs throughout the book, portrayed in different perspectives. His character will always choose the route of the economy, taking priority over humanity, emotion, empathy, winning the war. His duties in the mess hall are only secondary to the rest of his illegal dealings, which sometimes prove beneficial, and sometimes derogatory to the US army. Milo’s priorities are like Colonel Cathcart and Yossarian’s self-beneficial. His willingness to bomb his own squadron is compared with Cathcart’s willingness to send his men in Bologna. Whilst Milo’s capitalist lusts always draw him a profit, Cathcart’s attempts are not likely to gain him a promotion. One might argue that Milo is more justified in his actions than Cathcart.
Doctor Daneeka, having the power to ground any crazy pilot, thinks only about himself. Again, in this sense, he shares a trait of Yossarian’s. The difference between the two characters is present where Doc Daneeka fails to feel any empathy from any human being whatsoever, instead bemoaning his own troubles and belittling others. “He thinks he’s got troubles What about me?’ Doc Daneeka continued with a rousing sneer. Oh, I’m not complaining. I know there’s a war on. I know a lot of people are going to have to suffer for us to win it. But why must I be one of them?” His active complaining, despite not having to risk his life, or contribute to the war is self pitying, whilst Yossarian is desperate not to be one of Colonel Cathcart’s toys, whilst still retaining his human empathy for others.
Catch 22 uses satirical comments, contrasted directly by juxtaposed contradictions to mock the American military Bureaucracy during the Second World War. He explores various themes and represents a large range of participants in the war, using comedy to demonstrate the incompetence of the system as a whole. Joseph Heller is successful in condemning the autocratic authority, in being hypocritical in its becoming of a totalitarian institute in order to tackle one, through delving into problems involving miscommunication, misinterpretation, which often cause confusion. The development of the anti-hero, Yossarian, reveals him to be not entirely without hypocrisy, but retaining the ability to keep his humanity, investigated further through scenes of violence and death, view on Religion, existence of God and Christianity, and through the concept of insanity. His rebellion against the Bureaucracy’s absolute power develops the extent of the power of Catch 22, and its masterminds.