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Paradoxical situations arise all the time, and people cannot escape the situations or benefit from them because taking action is impossible. In Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, these paradoxes recur many times. The paradoxes, called Catch-22’s, trap Yossarian, an Air Force pilot of the 256th squadron, in an endless loop of hopelessness from which he desperately wants to escape. However, Catch-22 affects not only Yossarian but also his entire squadron. The military bureaucracy uses Catch-22 to control the soldiers and appear innocent, as if the soldiers have control of themselves, at the same time.
Yossarian first encounters Catch-22 when he requests to be sent home and relieved of combat duty. He tells Doc Daneeka that he, Yossarian, is insane and should be grounded, or not allowed to fly any more missions. However, asking to be sent home because of insanity proves his sanity; therefore, Catch-22 prevents him from leaving regardless of his sanity:
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 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. (46)
Although it is but a simple paradox, Catch-22 is genius. Escape from Catch-22 is impossible because no matter what action Yossarian takes, he ends up in the exact same place he was before. Eventually, Yossarian tries to outsmart Catch-22 by attempting to fly the number of missions required by his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart. However, every time someone actually reaches the number of missions required to go home, Colonel Cathcart simply raises the number of missions. Again, Yossarian finds himself caught by Catch-22, controlled by the military bureaucracy and forced to do its will, yet the members of the bureaucracy appear innocent because they cannot send Yossarian home if he is not crazy, and according to Catch-22, Yossarian is completely sane.
Another example of these recurring paradoxes occurs when Captain Black initiates a Loyalty Oath Crusade. Captain Black starts making his men sign a Loyalty Oath each time they want to do something, from eating to using a vehicle, in order to affirm their loyalty to the United States. However, he refuses to let Major Major sign a Loyalty Oath because Captain Black convinces himself that Major Major is a communist and therefore, should not be allowed to sign any loyalty oaths: “From now on I’m going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. And I’m not going to let that bastard Major Major sign one even if he wants to” (112). Because Major Major cannot sign an oath even if he wants to, he is a Communist, and according to Captain Black, Major Major is a Communist, so he would not sign the oath even if he could. Although Captain Black, who represents the military bureaucracy, does not explicitly cite this indirect usage of Catch-22 when he initiates the Loyalty Oaths, the Loyalty Oaths demonstrate the same concept of an inescapable loop in which Major Major, victimized by this Catch-22-like situation, cannot possibly win.
Examples of Catch-22 occur in not only fictional war stories but also real life. For example, take someone who does not have much work experience because he recently graduated college. He tries to get a job at a company, but the company refuses to hire him because of his lack of work experience. However, to get work experience, a company must hire him, but they will not hire him due to his lack of work experience. This endless cycle makes it impossible for the man to benefit from the situation because no matter what he does, he ends up in the same place where he started, which is nowhere. Furthermore, Catch-22 occurs on a larger scale as well—it can even explain the recent American economic and employment crisis: because Americans do not want to spend money until they feel that their jobs are secure, businesses, in turn, do not want to create more jobs until people start spending more money. This paradox is also similar to Catch-22; there is no escape from the cycle because both sides, the consumers and the businesses, are reluctant to make the first move.
However, Yossarian eventually finds a way to overcome Catch-22. When Colonel Cathcart discovers that Yossarian visited Rome without a pass, Colonel Cathcart offers him two choices: Yossarian can either face a court-martial, or the Air Force can send him home with an honorable discharge—but there is a catch. In order to be sent home with an honorable discharge, Yossarian must approve the new policy that raises the required number of missions to 80. Although the offer tempts him, Yossarian realizes that by accepting the offer, he effectively supports the military bureaucracy which he tried so hard to beat. Yossarian decides to create a third option and flee to Sweden. In doing so, Yossarian outsmarts Catch-22 and rejects the authority of the military bureaucracy.
Yossarian’s choice to take initiative and outsmart Catch-22 demonstrates a message: nothing is impossible, and if someone strives hard enough or takes initiative to overcome an obstacle, he will find a solution. Yossarian decides that he has had enough of the military system, so he simply quits, refusing to conform to the system. Overcoming Catch-22 in real-life situations is feasible as well; the recent college graduate, who has trouble finding a job because of lack of experience, should apply for a loan and get an internship at the company. To solve the economic crisis, the businesses should take initiative and create more jobs because although it may be slightly detrimental at first, it will definitely pay off in the long run. Catch-22 is just another obstacle that everyone will inevitably face. As Michael Jordan once said, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Yossarian never gave up on overcoming his obstacle. Why should anybody else give up on trying to beat their Catch-22?
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