Issues of Social Order and Responsibility in the War Novel
As most critics recognize, Catch-22 offers more than a critique of World War II despite its focus on the destructiveness of warfare. Instead Joseph Heller employs this setting to comment upon the condition of midcentury American life. His satire targets not just the military but all regimental institutions that treat individuals as cogs in a machine. His central character, Yossarian, recognizes the insanity of social institutions that devalue human life and tries to rebel against them, first in minor ways and finally through outright rejection of them. Yet Yossarian is not, as some have contended, an immoral or nonidealistic man. He is a man who responds to human suffering, unlike characters such as Colonel Cathcart and Milo Minderbinder, who ignore the human consequences of their actions. Yossarian's perceptions conflict with most everyone else's in the book. Thus, his encounters with people inevitably lead to mutual misunderstandings, to Yossarian labelling everyone else crazy, and to a sense of pervasive lunacy. This lack of rationality creates wild comedy in the novel, but, ultimately, it drives the book toward tragedy.
Yossarian sees the conflicts of the war in purely personal terms. To him, his enemies, which include his superior officers, are trying to murder him. Those who believe in the war cannot comprehend his reduction of its conflicts to personal assaults. The young airman Clevinger, for instance, refuses to accept Yossarian's views that people are trying to kill him:
"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossanan asked.
"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
"And what difference does that make?"
Clevinger was already on the way, half out of his chair with emotion, his eyes moist and his lips quivering and pale....There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.
Yossarian reduces the war to its barest elements and refuses to see himself as one component in a wider cause, which befuddles the "principled," patriotic Clevinger. Yet Yossarian does not reject the aims of the war (stopping the spread of Nazism); he reacts the way he does because he sees that the aims have been perverted. The men no longer serve a cause; they serve the insane whims of their superiors.
Men with authority in the novel do not focus on a common goal (which Clevinger believes), nor do they recognize the humanity of those they command. They value only the power they hold in the military (or the medical, religious, or commercial professions). To gain more power, these men corrupt and exploit the founding principles of the institutions they serve. For instance, instead of fighting to stop totalitarian regimes that would eliminate freedom, the military itself has imposed totalitarian rule. To maintain it, they utilize "Catch-22," a rule that they can change to fit their needs and that keeps the men trapped in their current roles. "Catch-22" grows more sinister as the novel progresses. It begins as a comic absurdity reflecting the essential powerlessness of those in the squadron since it keeps them flying the additional missions Colonel Cathcart orders:
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 [who wants to keep flying] was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask, and as soon as he did, he would no...
(The entire section is 1509 words.)