How does Joseph Heller's Catch-22 critique American institutions and lifestyles, particularly the military-industrial complex?

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 subtle.

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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...

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Although Catch-22 was inspired by Joseph Heller ’s experiences during the allied Italy campaigns in World War II, he published the novel in 1961. The novel is entirely situated in Italy in the 1940s, and the characters are Yossarian, his fellow military comrades, the nurses, and the Italian people with...

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whom they interacted. President Eisenhower made his famous speech in January 1961, upon leaving office. His warning about the power of the military-industrial complex is clearly relevant to Heller’s view of the 1950s US situation. The novel’s primary focus, however, is not the military itself. Rather, Heller lashes out against the power of corporate capitalism and governmental overreach. Comparing his stories with actual events in the United States, one sees that Heller is not subtle at all.

The most important character in this novel's critique of corporate expansion, including its reach into American governance, is Milo Minderbinder. Milo is based on Charles E. Wilson, the Chairman of General Motors who became Secretary of Defense. Within the story of Milo’s ascent to power, the key element to follow is Milo’s determination to sell the cotton that he acquired in Egypt. The best example of his efforts to make something unappealing into something that is literally palatable is Milo’s idea of making chocolate-covered cotton balls. While Yossarian is hiding in the tree, Milo climbs up and tries to make him eat one. Milo insists that his syndicate, in which everybody has a share, benefits everyone. Milo’s slogan of "what's good for the syndicate is good for everyone" is directly modeled on Wilson’s statement, during his 1953 confirmation hearings for the defense secretary post, when he stated his long-standing belief that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

The question of government intrusion into American lives focuses on McCarthyism, as the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were ongoing in the early 1950s. The key case to follow in the novel is the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade (chapter 11). Captain Black initiates the crusade as a way to ferret out communists in general but specifically to target the ineffectual Major Major. It succeeds for a while, as the officers and men are required to sign oaths for everything, including getting food in the commissary. Captain Black expands on the basic idea with his doctrine of Continual Reaffirmation, which would “trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they had signed a loyalty oath the day before.”

Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses.

This example directly imitates the oaths introduced in the Truman administration, especially the anti-communist oaths that the McCarthyites tried to compel people to sign.

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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.

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