Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 details the physical and psychological struggles of a young airman named Yossarian, who feigns illness and madness in an attempt to avoid being killed over World War II Italy. Realizing that the war is putting him in personal danger, Yossarian mounts a series of protests against it. At first, his protests are passive, as when he feigns illness and seeks refuge in an army field hospital. Later, he refuses to fly bombing missions, goes AWOL, and attempts escape, by inflatable rubber lifeboat, from Italy to Sweden.
Catch-22 features a dizzying array of characters, each having a unique dysfunctional relationship with the military bureaucracy that Heller rails against. Yossarian fights against the system because it does not take him into account. Orr, one of Yossarian’s peers, who shares Yossarian’s distaste for the war, successfully turns the military’s complete disregard for him into a tool that eventually enables him to escape. In contrast, Milo Minderbinder, one of the more insidious characters, harnesses the system for his own personal gain, counting on the self-interest of others to divert their attention from his ruthless profiteering.
One of the most haunting characters in the novel is the soldier in white. Completely wrapped, like a mummy, in strip bandages, the soldier in white first appears as a patient at the field hospital where Yossarian is hiding from the war. Yossarian observes that the soldier has no human characteristics whatsoever; even the soldier’s life-sustaining processes (his catheter bag fills as his IV bag empties) are mechanized. When one bag is empty and the other full, the bags are simply switched. This absurd, darkly comical commentary on the suppression of human qualities during wartime permeates Catch-22.
Another theme found throughout the book is the difficulty of subverting military and bureaucratic controls, which are intended to undermine people’s attempts at self-preservation. The book’s title derives from a military rule stating that people who are mentally impaired cannot be required to fly bombing missions. The catch, or catch-22, is that in order to be relieved of duty, they must request not to fly. The request, should they make it, indicates that they are acting rationally, in their own self-interest. Once the request is made, the soldier is judged mentally healthy and fit to fly his missions. Thus, the system ensures that all soldiers fly missions, regardless of their mental state.
Heller has gone on record as being opposed to the Vietnam War, but describes Catch-22 as a book about peacetime. Although the book was conceived and written prior to the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, Catch-22 was embraced as the premier antiwar novel of the Vietnam War era. Its laugh-out-loud humor and strong antiestablishment message has contributed to its continued popularity, and the word “catch-22” has entered the language.
The events take place in Pianosa, a small Italian island where an Air Force bombing group is sweating out the closing months of World War II, and Rome, where the flyers go on leave to stage latter-day Roman orgies in a city filled with prostitutes. Men who behave like madmen are awarded medals. In a world of madmen at war, the maddest—or the sanest—of all is Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier of the 256th Squadron. Deciding that death in war is a matter of circumstance and having no wish to be victimized by any kind of circumstance, he tries by every means he can think of—including malingering, defiance, cowardice, and irrational behavior—to get out of the war. That is his resolve after the disastrous raid over Avignon, when Snowden, the radio-gunner, was shot almost in two, splashing his blood and entrails over Yossarian’s uniform and teaching the bombardier the cold, simple fact of man’s mortality. For some time after that, Yossarian refuses to wear any clothes, and when General Dreedle, the wing commander, arrives to...
(The entire section is 1,745 words.)