Joseph Heller satirizes, among other matters, red tape and bureaucracy in hisfirst novel, Catch-22. The novel concerns itself with a World War II bombardiernamed Yossarian who suddenly realizes the danger of his position and triesvarious means to extricate himself from further missions. Yossarian is drivencrazy by the Germans, who keep shooting at him when he drops bombs on them, andby his American superiors, who seem less concerned about winning the war thanthey are about getting promoted. Heller spent eight years writing Catch-22, is aformer student at three universities–New York, Columbia and Oxford–and aformer teacher at Pennsylvania State College. From 1942 to 1945 he served as acombat bombardier in the Twelfth Air Force and was stationed on the island ofCorsica where he flew over 60 combat missions. That experience provided thegroundwork for this novel. (Way, 120) (Usborne) The protagonist and hero of thenovel is John Yossarian, a captain in the Air Force and a lead bombardier in hissquadron, 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 isthrown thoughtlessly into brutal combat situations and bombing runs on which itis more important for them to capture a good aerial photograph of an explosionthan to destroy their target. Their colonels continually raise the number ofmissions they are required to fly before being sent home so that no one is eversent home. Heller’s satire targets a variety of bureaucrats, themilitary-industrial complex, and the business ethic and economic arrangements ofAmerican society. Humor rising out of the crazy logic of modern warfare hitssquarely on the mark. (Hicks 32). The following passage demonstrates the humorand enlightens the reader about the book’s title and the major cause ofYossarian’s problems: Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried anotherapproach. ” 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 tokeep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I canground him. But first he has to ask me to.” “That’s all he has to doto be grounded?” “That’s all. Let him ask me.” “And then youcan ground him?” Yossarian asked. “No. Then I can’t ground him.””You mean there’s a catch?” “Sure there’s a catch,” DocDaneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat dutyisn’t really crazy.” Most of the supporting characters in Catch-22 arecardboard figures that are only distinctive to the reader by their inaneobsessions. Each lives with a particularly contorted view of the war in which hebelieves that he can function in the world as he pleases and that his dealingswill achieve his objectives. (Kennard 83) The fantastically powerful messofficer, Milo controls an international black market syndicate and is revered inobscure corners all over the world. He ruthlessly chases after profit and bombshis own men as part of a contract with Germany. Milo insists that everyone inthe squadron will benefit from being part of the syndicate, and that”everyone has a share.” The ambitious, unintelligent colonel in chargeof Yossarian’s squadron, Colonel Cathcart, wants to be a general. He tries toimpress his superiors by bravely volunteering his men for dangerous combat dutywhenever he gets the chance. He continually raises the number of combat missionsrequired of the men before they can be sent home. Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder,the mess officer, is the supreme champion of the profit motive and freeenterprise. He knows how to buy eggs for 7 cents and to sell them at a profitfor 5 cents. He contrives with Axis agents to bomb his own airfield when theGermans make him a reasonable offer: cost plus 6 per cent. He does this becausehe desperately needs more funds in his misguided quest to corner the Egyptiancotton market. Milo’s loyalties lay in general with capitalistic enterprise andspecifically with M ; M Enterprises. He lives by the principle that”what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country,” despite thediametrically opposed arrangement of his position and his philosophy. (Seltzer298-99) Colonel Cathcart tries to scheme his way ahead; he thinks of successfulactions as “feathers in his cap” and unsuccessful ones as “blackeyes.” For example, as the commanding officer, he keeps raising the numberof 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 fromtheir bombing runs. The reasoning behind this is sound: experienced pilots havea better chance of surviving and accomplishing their mission than do greenairmen. However, his motivation is not. Yossarian and his friends endure anightmarish, absurd existence defined by bureaucracy and violence: they areinhuman resources in the eyes of their blindly ambitious superior officers.
Because Cathcart cannot identify for sure what the higher headquarter generalsthink and because they themselves loathe and oppose each other, Cathcart’s”feathers” keep turning into “black eyes.” (Lindberg231-258) Still, no one but Yossarian seems to realize that there is a war goingon; everyone thinks he is crazy when he insists that millions of people aretrying to kill him. Yossarian is unique because he takes the whole warpersonally–rather than being swayed by national ideals or abstract principles,Yossarian is furious that his life is constantly in danger, and not as a resultof his own misdeeds. His powerful desire to live has led him to the conclusionthat millions of people are out to get him, and he has decided either to liveforever or, ironically, die trying. In the end, he takes a possibly morallysuspect, 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 whobravely volunteer their men for the most perilous battle. The paradoxical lawcalled 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; heturns his back on the dehumanizing cold machinery of the military, andultimately, and finally, rejects the rule of Catch-22.
BibliographyHeller, 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.” MOSAICIV/3 (University of Manitoba, 1971) Lindberg, Gary. “Playing for Real – TheConfidence Man in American Literature.” Oxford University Press (1982)Merrill, Robert. “The Structure and Meaning of Catch-22. Studies inAmerican Fiction. 14.2 (1986) Seltzer, Leon F. “Milo’s ‘CulpableInnocence’: Absurdity as Moral Insanity in ‘Catch-22.'” Papers on Languageand Literature. 15.3 (1979) Usborne, David. “Joseph Heller, Master of BlackSatire.” Independent News. (Dec 14, 1999): 2pp. Online. Internet. Feb 122000. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/World/Americas/heller141299.shtmlWay, Brian. “Formal Experiment and Social Discontent: Joseph Heller’s Catch22.” The Penguin Companion to American Literature. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury,Eric Mottram, and Jean Franco.