Meghan A, May 04, 2010
Joseph Heller’s classic bestseller Catch-22 is at once a hilarious, witty war story and a dark, biting commentary on the absurdity of war. The novel follows Yossarian, an American bombardier in World War II, in his struggle to stay alive when everyone around him is trying to kill him. He has a difficult task, since at his camp “the enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed” (124). That seems to encompass quite a few people, including Colonel Cathcart and the other officers in the American army. The officers continually sign up Yossarian’s unit for dangerous bombing missions meant to enhance the prestige of the unit, without regard for the American lives lost in the process. Throughout the book, we meet characters such as Milo Minderbinder, the epitome of capitalism and greed who runs a worldwide produce monopoly in the black market. We also follow the group chaplain, whose soft and gentle nature is not suited for the harsh realities of war. The antagonist in this story is not the German army. In fact, we never see the Germans. Yossarian’s opposing forces are the numerous colonels and generals who exemplify the absolute power and absolute inadequacy of the bureaucracy. Yossarian must overcome a system that is stacked against him, including the bureaucracy’s favorite catch-22, which is defined as any rule that applies only when it cannot be used.
While Catch-22 was written during after World War II, it did not gain true popularity until the Vietnam War. Vietnam protesters found their war sentiments already expressed in Catch-22. They could sympathize with Yossarian’s struggle to stay alive in a war he did not agree with or care about, and his need to return home. The novel comments that “it does not make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead” (123). Catch-22 shoots down the view that war is a condition meant to promote the collective good of the nation, instead arguing that war is a very personal battle. Catch-22 places the idea of the soldier above the idea of the army in a way that would feel very close to the hearts of Vietnam opponents.
A main idea of Catch-22 is the absurdity of war. Catch-22 portrays that war is absurd through the ridiculousness and ineptitude of the bureaucracy.
The absurdity of war is exemplified by the use of the titular catch-22. The catch-22 stops one of Yossarian’s war escape schemes from success. Yossarian asks his friend and camp doctor, Doc Daneeka, to help him go home. Yossarian simply needs Doc to officially write up that he is insane and he will be sent back home immediately. However, Doc reminds him of catch-22. Yossarian can only be deemed insane if he asks Doc to observe his mental state. As soon as Yossarian asks to be checked for insanity, he is automatically considered sane because “a concern for one’s own safety was the process of a rational mind” (46).This ridiculous rule ensures that nobody, either sane or insane, can leave the war for insanity. The manipulative and conniving bureaucracy simply makes rules to benefit themselves, rather than for the soldiers fighting in the war.
The backwards logic of the bureaucracy when questioning the chaplain also demonstrates this absurdity. The chaplain is taken into custody by the army for forging a fake name on documents. He did no such thing, of course, but the army has many witnesses who will swear he did. To prove that he wrote the name, the investigators ask him to write his name in his own handwriting. When it does not match the forged document’s signature, they call the chaplain guilty and are disgusted because “a person who’ll lie about his own handwriting will lie about anything” (381). The investigators continue questioning him and, when the chaplain asks if he is found guilty, they ask, “Why would we be questioning you if you’re not guilty?” (384). The bureaucracy is shown to be all-powerful and cannot be questioned in their illogic. The whole situation proves their closed-mindedness to rationality and facts. However, there is nothing holding them accountable to the true facts. “Witnesses” offer up false information in order to get on the good side of the army leaders and increase their chances of promotion. War is absurd in Catch-22 because, rather than serving the original purpose of protecting one’s nation, members of the bureaucracy uses the war for personal gain at the expense of others.
I would recommend this book to anyone with patience. While the entire book is entertaining, the middle section does tend to get very long and confusing. With only partial flashbacks to see how Yossarian became so disillusioned with the war, readers will become confused and feel they only know half of what is going on. I think this confusion is intentional and symbolic. Heller causes the reader’s emotions to mirror how the soldiers feel towards the war: confused and impatient. Because of this tactic, the reader is able to better sympathize with Yossarian and the other soldiers. While the middle pages do tend to get long, if you stick it out until the end, you will find that the moving and exciting ending is definitely worth the wait.