War As a Crucial Element in Catch 22 Novel
The ability to think both rationally and irrationally is simultaneously a blessing and a curse for the human race. In the satirical novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, this bittersweet power to reason and think logically proves to be the source of conflict for the protagonist, Yossarian, as he struggles to survive in combat. In the backwards, militaristic world that Yossarian is a part of, the absurd clause of “Catch-22” keeps him from escaping combat missions because of his sanity. Throughout Yossarian’s comical journey, we are exposed to the illogical machinations of the military, absurdities that attest to the imprudent philosophy that war is a necessary prerequisite for peace. By employing literary devices such as irony, characterization, and satire, Heller purposefully makes statements from his own experience concerning the objectives of war. Heller successfully proves that the idea of war as a means for establishing peace is a conundrum on both a philosophical and a personal level.
In order to understand the author’s implications in Catch-22, we must first grasp the extent to which his work subtly influenced modern American society. Nowadays, the term “catch-22” has become a common term or phrase in the American lexicon. The novel itself coined the term and inspired its widespread popularity. With the publishing of Joseph Heller’s novel in 1961, popular culture was exposed to the phrase and it has since grown to be a misunderstood, yet commonly used, term in our language (Martin np). Interestingly enough, the title of Heller’s novel was originally Catch-18, but the novel Mila 18 was published around the same time and Heller was asked to change the name to prevent mix-ups between the two (Zotti np).
Although the phrase has spread like wildfire since the publishing of Catch-22, it has grown to take on a different meaning than originally intended. According to the novel, the clearest definition of a “Catch-22” can be found through the narrator’s explanation on page 47:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
The text makes it clear that a “catch-22” is a paradoxical, illogical situation. Yossarian is restrained by the subjective demands of his superiors because his mental state, whether it be sane or insane, would preclude him from being grounded. Fortunately for the courageous individuals who serve our country, the illogicality of war is not vocalized in a law as ridiculous as the theoretical clause of Catch-22.
Although it is clear that these circumstances do exist in reality, the phrase “catch-22” is often over-generalized to apply to situations in which a person has to make two bad choices. In psychology, the state of being faced with two difficult choices is actually called an “avoidance-avoidance conflict” (Merriam-Webster np). The confusion between an “avoidance-avoidance conflict” and a “catch-22” is unfortunately quite common and it takes away from the sheer brilliance of the phrase that endows the eponymous novel.
Armed with a greater understanding of the term “catch-22”, it is easy to see how fitting it is for the phrase to be so broadly used. The universal usage of this term parallels the ubiquitous existence of war and conflict in our society. Organized military structures can be traced back as far as 2700 B.C.E. in Sumer (Gabriel, Metz 1). For thousands of years, war has been closely tied with humanity in general. Whether it is a result of theological, economic, geographical, or familiar disputes, war is used as a barbaric method for solving problems. Realistically, it is impractical and illogical to propose violence as a solution when peace is the ultimate goal. In order to resolve a conflict, the opposing parties should not exacerbate the dispute; rather, it is logical and beneficial to both sides if the opponents work towards achieving peace directly.
The author, Joseph Heller, was familiar with this absurd philosophy of using war to engender peace because he was a World War II veteran himself (Plimpton np). Heller flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier for the United States. According to the 5% death rate associated with these missions, Heller should have been killed three times, but he was fortunate enough to survive and recount his anti-war sentiments by writing Catch-22. Not only are some of the scenes in the novel taken from his own experiences, but also others are references to the wartime memories of his peers. For example, the scene in which the psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, discusses Yossarian’s dream of holding a fish on pages 302 to 305 was inspired by a similar war story that George Mandel told to Heller. Essentially, it is clear that Heller’s anti-war sentiments and jabs at the illogical nature of the military, bureaucracies, and combat in general are more than presumptions; they are justified statements for which Heller has the necessary ethos to write. His first hand experiences with flying combat missions in the war enabled him to speak passionately, lucidly, and satirically about the confusing nature of war.
Throughout the novel, the author employs irony to symbolically illustrate the ridiculous nature of war. The specific situations he proposes are meant to represent the universally illogical ideas behind war. For example, rather than being reprimanded for his failure to bomb the target at Ferrara, Yossarian is honored with a medal and promoted to captain for flying over the target twice, even though his actions resulted in the death of Kraft (141-144). Colonel Cathcart rewards Yossarian for his incompetence during the mission even though it would traditionally be expected that Yossarian be punished. This scene is a testament to Heller’s points about the absurd nature of war.
Another ironic and absurd situation involves the actions of a character known as “Nately’s whore” (463) throughout the end of the novel. Nately, a friend of Yossarian’s, had been showing his affection for a particular prostitute. She rarely offered him any reciprocated attention, unless he was paying her, but she began to love him during their last encounter. She valued the attention he gave her, so when Yossarian informed her that Nately was dead, she vigilantly fought to murder Yossarian since she thought he had been Nately’s killer. Although she gave Nately little attention until shortly before his death, she was violently distraught over it when Yossarian broke the news to her. Her anger continued throughout the remainder of the novel, as seen through her relentless attempts to murder Yossarian.
On page 439, Nately’s whore attempts to kill Yossarian with a kitchen knife while he is at camp. Several pages later, ironically, he is lauded for supposedly saving Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn from a Nazi assassin as part of a deal (443). Once again, Yossarian is being recognized for something negative; in this case, he is made out to be a hero by the Colonels since they have made an arrangement to send him home after boosting his reputation. Yossarian’s incessant resistance to authority and his stab wound are turned into positives as he is put in position to be sent home as a hero. Eventually, Yossarian chooses to desert instead of following through with the deal, and he narrowly escapes another assassination attempt by Nately’s whore as he leaves. Her continued violent reaction was drastically different from her original feelings towards Nately, making another ridiculous moment in the novel that shows how backwards the world of Catch-22, and ultimately our world, tends to be.
The situational irony that relates to the absurdly named Major Major Major Major is that is unwarranted promotion to squadron commander on page 91. Colonel Cathcart informs Major Major Major that he is the new squadron commander, earning him the title Major Major Major Major, but clarifies this achievement by saying, “’But don’t think it means anything, because it doesn’t. All it means is that you’re the new squadron commander’” (91). Ultimately, this position of authority results in Major Major Major Major actually losing respect, contrary to what most people would think should happen. He becomes so alienated from his old friends that he decides to only allow people into his office when he isn’t present, preventing them from entering until he leaves. Sergeant Towser is placed in charge of regulating this irrational policy on page 102 by being told that he must make certain that Major Major Major Major has left before he can let anyone into the office. The ironic loss of respect that Major Major Major Major faces and his consequent construction of a paradoxical meeting policy make evident the author’s negative views on the inconsistencies, contradictions, and complexities of the military and its ventures.
There is abounding evidence of verbal irony in the text as well; for example, on page 36, Colonel Korn is said to have a “stroke of genius” (36) when he creates a rule that only allows questions to be asked by the people who don’t ask questions. This rule, which is clearly illogical, is praised unconditionally. On page 28, an entire paragraph is dedicated to the sarcastic lauding of Colonel Cargill for his phenomenal ability to ruin enterprises and fail miserably. The entire paragraph is phrased as a compliment to Colonel Cargill, but the actual intention is to deride his lack of intelligence and his shortcomings as a marketing executive.
While various forms of irony are prevalent throughout the novel and serve to bolster the author’s points about war, the direct and indirect characterization of figures in the novel has a clearer association with the purpose of the novel. Our protagonist, Yossarian, is cast to be the only character in the novel with some semblance of rational thought, for he recognizes the inherent unfairness in Catch-22 and he yearns endlessly to be sent home. Disparaging conversations about Yossarian that are held between Colonel Cathcart and other officers enable the author to directly characterize Yossarian as a nuisance to the military due to his constant fear of dying on missions. Yossarian and his friend, Dunbar, often seek to escape from combat by feigning sickness and going into the hospital. Conveniently, Yossarian’s fake illness becomes a catch-22 on its own; his liver pains are not severe enough to be considered jaundice, a condition that can be treated, but they also aren’t meager enough to have him sent back into combat (7). In order for Yossarian to be treated, his “illness” has to get worse, but since it doesn’t get worse, he can’t be treated and made healthy enough to return to combat. Yossarian briefly succeeds at using the same logical fallacies that keep him in the war to his advantage, demonstrating his own intelligence and becoming a subtle form of irony as well.
While his sarcasm towards other characters throughout the novel and his understanding of his own desires are evidence of his sanity, he tries to portray himself as an insane person. In an argument with Clevinger on page 20, Clevinger calls Yossarian crazy for being paranoid and thinking that everybody was out to get him. On page 46, Yossarian argues with Doc Daneeka in an attempt to justify his own insanity. A prostitute, Luciana, calls Yossarian crazy on page 164 when he asks her to marry him.
Evidently, Yossarian contrasts his rational thoughts with his desire to be considered ostensibly insane. It seems as if he is attempting to comfort himself by conforming, but ultimately, it is to no avail. On page 455, a conversation between Major Danby and Yossarian illustrates Yossarian’s desire to stand up for himself: “’From now on I’m thinking only of me.’ Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile, ‘But Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way’” (455). Yossarian’s witty response confirms his logical sanity: “‘Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?’”(455). According to Catch-22 and clear to see the reader, Yossarian’s concern for his wellbeing is a sign that he is sane, but he is viewed as completely and almost humorously discontent with his life. Yossarian’s witty remarks, safety worries, and falsely nonsensical behaviors all contribute to the indirect characterization of Yossarian as a sane man who is pushed to his limits in an insane world.
In contrast, several of the other characters are directly and indirectly described as insane without having to prove it themselves. Aarfy pretends to be unable to hear Yossarian’s demands for his cooperation during a mission, even when their lives are in danger (152). He playfully pokes Yossarian in the ribs and displays no regard for the dire situation they are in, prompting Yossarian to fittingly ask of him, “’Are you crazy?’”
Similarly, the actions of Orr characterize him as insane on a variety of levels. On pages 23 and 24, Orr describes his old habit of placing horse chestnuts or crab apples in his cheeks. Later on, Orr claims that Appleby has flies behind his eyes, prompting Yossarian to break the news to Appleby and resulting in some clear confusion (47). Other characters, including Havermeyer on page 32, claim that Hungry Joe is crazy. Yossarian openly agrees with Havermeyer’s statement as well (32). Even Chief White Halfoat demonstrates some behaviors that make his sanity questionable; his apparent decision to die of pneumonia and his claim to slit Captain Flume’s throat are worrisome and unnatural.
Clearly, the themes of sanity and insanity play a major role in the characterization of figures throughout the novel. This focus on the mental state of characters is not only central to the author’s points about the nonsensicality of war, but it also has a strong basis in reality. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an illness that afflicts many individuals who have had shocking experiences due to their military backgrounds. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder np). It also states the exposure to combat, being threatened by armed individuals, and being physically assaulted could be causes of the disorder, which includes other symptoms like aggressive outbursts, constant fears of danger, depression, difficulty sleeping, and sensitivity to frightening situations. These symptoms are evident in the anxiety of Captain Flume, the nightmares of Hungry Joe, and the fervent concern for safety of Yossarian. They can all be attributed to the aforementioned, conflict-related causes as well. The overbearing effect of the war on the bombardiers in Yossarian’s squadron is directly described on page 27:
“There were more of them now than when Yossarian had gone into the hospital and they were still waiting. They worried and bit their nails. They moved sideways like crabs. They were waiting for the orders sending them home to safety to return from Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters in Italy, and while they waited they had nothing to do but worry and bite their nails and find their way solemnly to Sergeant Towser several times a day to ask if the orders sending them home to safety had come.”
Besides the intrinsic illogicality of war on a philosophical level, there are also consequences that damage individuals on a personal level, as seen above. The effect of war on the characters in Catch-22 plays a significant role in the way they are portrayed by the author and contributes to the author’s overall perspective on war.
An important aspect of the novel to consider is its genre; Catch-22 falls under the category of a satire. A satire is defined as “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit” (“Satire” np). They comically criticize the values of individuals, organizations, or humanity at large in order to make declarative statements about the issues they address.
The characterization of the officers as unintelligent and nonsensical contributes to the satire found in the novel, which serves to present the war as an idiotic conflict spurred on by unnecessary bureaucracies and unresolved issues. The authority figures in Catch-22 are mostly portrayed as power-hungry, absentminded individuals. Several scenes, such as the unjust, comical trial of Clevinger on pages 76 to 83, Colonel Cargill’s assumption that “T.S. Eliot” is a secret code on pages 37 and 38, and Colonel Cathcart’s obsessive analysis of Yossarian from pages 213 to 219, are meant to illustrate just how little common sense these high-ranking officers possess. The ridiculous actions and statements of the officers and administration are meant to represent the overarching ridiculousness that the author sees in war. Ineffective bureaucracies, incompetent officers, and useless wars are all corruptions that the author seeks to unveil. Colonel Cathcart’s continuous raising of the required amount of missions and the failure by all officers to acknowledge the luggage of a deceased soldier that remains in Yossarian’s room are just two examples of the militaristic inadequacies that make unjust wars even worse. It’s as if the socially accepted status of war and militaristic administration are drastically askew, but they have yet to be universally seen as issues; this idea is expressed concisely through a single quote in the novel: “He woke up blinking with a slight pain in his head and opened his eyes upon a world boiling in chaos in which everything was in proper order” (148).
An interruption to the brutal sarcasm and mockery of Catch-22 can be found on page 175, where we find Yossarian and several others considering the unfairness of our world. Malaria strikes a warrant officer for no apparent reason and a father who worked tirelessly for years died without sending his children to college, but a young man who admits to laziness has a $300,000 fortune waiting for him back home. People don’t get what they deserve; illness, misfortune, and death strike those who’ve worked endlessly to succeed, but success and riches are thrown haphazardly into the arms of some who haven’t labored a single day. This reflective section of the text alludes to the general unfairness of life and war especially; innocent men and women lose their lives after valiant attempts to serve their countries and the casualties of vulnerable laypeople are equally disturbing consequences. Heller uses fragments of chapters like this one to propose poignant statements about the pointlessness of war, sprinkling them throughout the novel in order to break up his satirical mockery with some more emotion.
Outside of the novel, Heller is not a maverick in his views; a wide variety of individuals feel similarly about the futile nature of war. Gregory A. Daddis analyzes the question of why we go to war in an article for the LA Times (Daddis np). His article asserts that war is not only lacking in political value, but also falling short of attaining its apparent goal- to establish peace. The idea of exacerbating a conflict in order to resolve it seems quite counterproductive, but surprisingly, it has been a practiced tradition for far too many years. Daddis closes his article with a reference to the song “War” by Edwin Star, in which the lyrical question “War, what is it good for?” receives the answer “Absolutely nothing” (Daddis np). This view of war as an ineffective and illogical tool is a perspective shared by a man who is arguably one of the brightest minds to ever walk this Earth. That man is no other than Albert Einstein, the world-renowned physicist whose theory of relativity was used for the construction of the nuclear bomb (Jha np).
An obscure correspondence between Einstein and a fellow genius, psychoanalytical psychologist Sigmund Freud, was conducted to discuss their views on how to rid humanity of war. Einstein disapproves of war and, at one point, he proposes that a supranational organization be established to settle disputes diplomatically. Freud, in response, attempts to explain this human tendency to engage in war as a natural behavior and he states that unity and community are forces strong enough to overcome the desire for war in order to resolve conflicts. It is clear that even two of the world’s brightest thinkers have agreed with the impracticality of war as a means for engendering harmony. Entire organizations, such as the World Beyond War movement, are dedicated to pushing our society to become a civilization in which war is no longer relied upon (World Beyond War np). The movement’s website debunks certain “myths” about war, including the ideas that “War is necessary” and “War is beneficial” (World Beyond War np).
In retrospect, it should have been clear to our civilization that war is in fact an unnecessary, avoidable hindrance to the betterment of society. It is nonsensical to engage in combat, risking innocent lives and causing widespread destruction, when the ultimate goal is to attain peace through such bloodshed. The continuation of this illogical heuristic for finding peace is spurred on in part by the overly bureaucratic and insensitive military administrations, according to Joseph Heller. His satirical novel Catch-22 is one that delves into the paradoxical nature of war and insanity, illustrating his anti-war sentiments through the use of irony, characterization, satire, and the confusing scenario of catch-22s. Ultimately, Heller was successful in proving that war cannot be a just means for establishing peace. With the widespread reach of his groundbreaking novel, this notion has reached individuals across the world, hopefully inspiring them to see the detrimental and nonsensical consequences of war.
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