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Critique of Bureaucracy and The Government in Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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The book I am researching is ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller. It is a book set in WW2 and focuses on the terrifying aspects of the war and how the soldiers had no power or control over anything they did or even whether they lived or died. The main character is Captain John Yossarian, a bomber that is stationed on a small island outside Italy called Pianosa. A lot of the book sees Yossarian try to escape the army as he is stuck in a ‘catch-22’ that means he cannot leave or be discharged.

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A catch-22 is a ‘paradoxical loop that a person cannot escape because of contradictory rules’. An example of this in real life is finding a job. How can someone gain experience to get a job if they are constantly turned away for not having any?

There are many themes that run throughout this book. For example, the loss of religious faith or the impotence of language. The main theme that I will be focusing on is the absolute power of bureaucracy and their abuse of that power. This theme is the most influential one in the book and it gives the reader a sense of what WW2 was like and how the soldiers were governed by their superiors who had no concern for their safety. Along with this theme, I will also be focusing on the catch-22 motif that runs throughout the book. This motif links to the theme of bureaucracy because Yossarian and all his co-pilots are caught in a catch-22 by the bureaucrats. As well as this, this motif is one of the most important features of the book as it is the title and also the most well-known thing about it.

Bureaucracy is ‘a system of government in which most of the important decisions are taken by state officials rather than by elected representatives’ and the bureaucrats are the officials of that government.

In this piece of writing I want to show how Joseph Heller criticises bureaucracy and the government using catch-22s and other clever techniques. He also shows the effect that bureaucracy has on the characters within the book which reflect the negative impact the power of bureaucracy has in society. I will do this by giving examples of these techniques with explanations that help to prove my point.

Throughout this book Heller shows the power of the bureaucracy and presents it as unfair and selfish, abusing their power for their own gain and having no care for the well-being or lives of their soldiers. He uses this to criticise and ridicule governments and bureaucracies in our society for having the same qualities, others have described the book as a satire on war and bureaucracy. He specifically focuses on how the American government abused its power during WW2, repeatedly putting their soldiers in danger for no good reason.

The bureaucrats are controlling and have little care for their soldiers. “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.”

This catch-22 has been put in place by the bureaucrats in order to stop the soldiers being able to be discharged. If they were crazy they could be discharged but if they said they were crazy, that meant they were not. The repetitive use of this motif throughout this book allows the reader to be put in Yossarians position. He is trapped, surrounded on all sides by people who want to kill him and people who want to send him to his death. The use of this motif also highlights the extent to which the soldiers are controlled and manipulated by the bureaucrats. This shows how the bureaucrats will do everything in their power to stop people from being discharged. It presents the bureaucrats within this book as being selfish and having complete disregard for any of the soldiers’ lives and reflects what Joseph Heller thinks bureaucracies and governments are like in our society.

The bureaucrats abuse their power for their own gain. “That’s the catch. Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-Seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you’d still have to fly them, or you’d be guilty of disobeying an order of his.”

This is one of the biggest catch-22s in the whole book. Colonel Cathcart wants to be promoted so he keeps ordering his men to fly more missions before they can be discharged. This catch-22 Is the biggest thing that keeps this soldiers from escaping because every time Yossarian comes close to the required amount of missions, the colonel raises it again. The use of this motif shows the absolute disregard the bureaucrats have for the lives of their soldiers, they will put their lives in danger over and over again just because they want to be promoted. This also makes us feel sympathy for the soldiers because of the utter futility of attempting to escape the system the honest way.

The bureaucrats are unfair, people gain power and ranks not because of merit but because of luck or money.. “General Dreedle stepped up to pin a medal on him for his heroism over Ferrara”

This is the main character in the book, John Yossarian receiving a medal for his so called ‘heroics’ in one of his missions. However, the use of the abstract noun, ‘heroism’ is ironic because all he actually did was make a mistake that caused one of his comrades to be killed. Here he learns the true nature of the bureaucrats. He begins by having confidence in his actions however his actions cause other people to die and he quickly loses the confidence. When he is awarded this medal, it shows Yossarian and the readers how unjust the bureaucrats are and makes him decide that he must find any way possible to leave the army. It also shows how the bureaucrats have absolute power. You could be the bravest and most heroic soldier in the army, but the bureaucrats decide that the officer who caused people to die gets the awards for bravery and honour. This is shown again in the book when a soldier called Major Major is promoted simply because of his name. These are the messages Heller was trying to get across about the unfairness of bureaucracy.

Heller criticises real world governments because of their manipulation and abuse of their power. “‘The important thing is to keep pledging,’ he explained to his cohorts. ’It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ mean.’ ‘

Here, Captain Black shows his jingoism (extreme patriotism) by forcing officers to sign ‘loyalty oaths’ and claims that the more loyalty oaths an officer signs, the more ‘patriotic’ the officer was presumed to be. Heller suggests that the loyalty oaths are meaningless when he says that the officers later became forced to sign these oaths in order to be served food and granted other basic human rights. Heller’s authorial intention here is to criticise the pointlessness of American patriotism and gives the example of the pledge of allegiance, in which many young students do not even understand what they are saying. Heller is also criticising the American government for brainwashing their soldiers into accepting every order without question, allowing the people in charge to have complete power over them.

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In conclusion, Joseph Heller uses the motif of catch-22 and different characters such as Captain Black and Colonel Cathcart to criticise modern bureaucracies and governments for their abuse of power, especially during WW2. He presents the bureaucracy in catch-22 as having no concern for anyone but themselves, this is supposed to be a reflection of bureaucracies and governments in society. He also uses the theme of the absolute power of bureaucracy to give the reader a sense of what life was like in WW2 and how soldiers had no control over their lives.

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Critique Of Bureaucracy And The Government In Catch-22 By Joseph Heller. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 28, 2023, from
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