by Joseph Heller
Genre: classic, fiction, historical, satire, humour, World War II
At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war.
His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he’s committed to flying, he’s trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he’s sane and therefore, ineligible to be relieved.
Catch 22 is the second book with a World War II theme that I read this month, now from the soldiers’ point of view. It is a very sharp satire of the entire war and military hierarchy, but also of American society and culture. The obsession with money and profit is shown in all its crudeness and ruthlessness. Those parts just physically hurt in your soul, but in some way the book was ahead of its time by predicting just where this obsession will lead us. Kudos to the writer.
The book is rather hard to get into at first, but once you’re used to the writing style and the non-linear way the story is told, you’ll enjoy it. Yossarian will become your hero or at least one of the most memorable characters you’ve ever had the fortune to read about. He’s one of the last sane people in the platoon and that causes him uncountable number of problems with other people and the bureaucracy in particular. Logic and common sense have no place in a war or in a general’s mind. Combine that with other incompetent people feeling envious and the recipe for a disaster of epic proportions is done.
“I’ve flown over seventy goddam combat missions. Don’t talk to me about fighting to save my country. I’ve been fighting all along to save my country. Now I’m going to fight a little to save myself. The country’s not in danger any more, but I am.”
I understand perfectly why this book became such a hit with Vietnam War veterans. It describes all possible absurd situations one can encounter in the army, especially the unfortunate drafted soldiers. Not to even mention the bureaucracy and communications – one might just find themselves declared dead and their ‘widow’ paid their life insurance while the army does everything possible to hide the mistake. A dead soldier might be declared a deserter because his papers weren’t filed correctly. Similar tragic but possible scenarios just abound making your hair stand on end and amusing you at the same time.
“The dead man in Yossarian’s tent was a pest, and Yossarian didn’t like him, even though he had never seen him. Having him laying around all day annoyed Yossarian so much that he had gone to the orderly room several times to complain to Sergeant Towser, who refused to admit that the dead man even existed, which, of course, he no longer did.”
Yossarian makes a pest of himself towards his superiors. He just doesn’t follow the official line and behaves like a good little soldier. He questions things, he makes demands, he pretends to be crazy or ill; he does everything to make them see that he’s flown enough missions. From the official 25 missions he finishes 70 his glory-hounding superiors assign to the squadron. It is these officers, who are highly incompetent in the first place, who cause the ordinary men a lot of grief. The one I find the most reprehensible is Milo Minderbinder – the mess officer who becomes obsessed with his own company M&M Enterprises. He starts a black market then expands his operations to all corners of the world, using army planes and personnel for his operations, claiming everyone is part of the syndicate. “What’s good for Milo Minderbinder, is good for the country,” becomes his motto. He is one of the best portrayals of war profiteers that I’ve ever seen and I doubt anyone can top him in ruthlessness.
Milo Minderbinder: We’re gonna come out of this war rich!
Yossarian: You’re gonna come out rich. We’re gonna come out dead.
Milo has no trouble removing pain-killers form first aid pack and selling them in some other country for profit. Yossarian just can’t convince him that this is morally objectionable because Milo functions only on the basis of money and profit. He becomes the foil for the rampaging capitalism and the inhumanity of a system that is focused on the money and not on the people it hurts. The height of Milo’s career is the air strike on his own squadron and base since the Germans hired him to kill his fellow soldiers. He’s finally brought to court for the deaths his actions caused. In the usual Catch 22 fashion, he finds a way to convince the government that his business is too profitable to go down and he gets off scot-free. He reminds me of the drug traders in the Vietnam and Afghanistan War. We all know the army was just the transport service.
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
All kinds of tragic and absurd things happen and it is usually the most morally corrupt that survive and get through life the easy way. What is surprising for this satire is the number of issues it tackles – there’s so much truth in it that you sometimes don’t know whether to cry or to laugh. Some characters will get your sympathy, others you’ll hate with a passion, but the end line is that you’ll like the only voice of reason in this whole mess and that is Yossarian. He’s got his own quirks alright, but he’s a nice guy.
“The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”
The book is a classic that is well worth the read. You should disregard the blatant sexism in some of the parts because women here are mostly delegated to the role of nurses and prostitutes, but even these portrayals carry a critical note. You just have to read between the lines to see that society and war itself delegate them these roles, but some choose it because it is the simplest solution in a time when survival is the only pressing issue at hand. So while there are some parts of the novel I didn’t enjoy as much, the rest is pure gold.