How is Joseph Heller's Catch-22 an attack on certain American institutions and lifestyles?
The main critique, in my opinion, seems to be of the military-industrial complex, an institution that usurps man's power over his own life, an institution that is a pure threat to the basic maintenance of life and yet is so incredibly important to some Americans. However, I am having great difficulty in explaining these concepts with quotes and references to the text, since much of the underlying critique seems very suble.
Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 can be read as a satire on a number of aspects of American culture, including (or perhaps especially) the American military bureaucracy. Examples of this kind of satire include the following:
- Yossarian is an American military pilot during World War II who is often forced to fly dangerous and pointless missions. Danger, of course, is one of the risks any military pilot faces, but pointless danger seems absurd, and Heller clearly mocks it.
- Many of Yossarian’s superiors are indifferent and self-serving; they care little about their men or even about any larger, truly patriotic mission. They focus mainly on serving narrow interests of their own.
- A good example of such a superior is Colonel Cathcart, who, in seeking to promote himself (and get himself promoted), keeps raising the number of missions he expects his men to fly.
- The death of a young airman named Snowden is a good example of the tragic consequences that can result from fundamentally absurd values.
- Ultimately, Yossarian simply deserts the military rather than to continue to participate in a system he considers significantly corrupt.
- Typical of the satire the novel offers of many military officers is the following passage, which appears early in Chapter 8:
Lieutenant Scheisskopf was an R.O.T.C. graduate who was rather glad that the war had broken out, since it gave him an opportunity to wear an officer’s uniform every day and say “Men” in a clipped, military voice to the bunches of kids who fell into his clutches every eight weeks on their way to the butcher’s block.
The attitude here toward Scheisskopf (whose very name means “shithead”) is plainly contemptuous. One senses that the narrator would have more respect for officers if officers showed more respect for their men.
- A few sentences later, the narrator again reports of Scheisskopf,
He had poor eyesight and chronic sinus trouble, which made war especially exciting for him, since he was in no danger of going overseas.
Scheisskopf is typical of many of the officers the book describes: unqualified, indifferent, selfish, shallow, hypocritical, and literally short-sighted.