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Catch-22 is a novel that tells many stories, but the crux of the novel concerns Joseph Yossarian, a bombardier stationed at the United States Army Air Force base on the fictional Mediterranean island of Pianosa. A war rages between the Allies and the Nazis, but there is another, more important war occurring for Yossarian – a far more personal war. His war is not only against the Germans but also against anyone else who tries to kill him, including the military hierarchy that demands that he continue to fly combat missions. According to Robert M. Young, Yossarian’s only goal is to “live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission…[is] to come down alive” (Young). To Yossarian, the war begins to seem quite mad. Leon F. Seltzer states that Yossarian lives in a “nightmarish world in which one’s superior…officers constitute a greater threat to one’s life and sanity than the enemy” (188). Officers in the military should be models of leadership to their subordinates, setting an example and putting the needs of the men under their command before their own desires. The officers in Catch-22, however, abuse their power in order to achieve some personal goal: public recognition, promotions in rank or position, or some form of individual gratification. The men commanded by these corrupt leaders “no longer serve a cause; they serve the insane whims of their superiors,” as indicated by Darren Felty (106). Joseph Heller’s goal is not just to criticize the act of war, but also to satire “those who subvert…institutions for their own advantage” (Young 351). In Catch-22, Heller redefines the role of authority from responsibility and accountability that are used to serve and protect one’s subordinates to control that allows self-seeking men to fulfill their selfish goals.
The main obstacle to Yossarian in achieving his goal is his wing commander, Colonel Cathcart, who constantly raises the number of missions his men have to fly before they can transfer stateside. Striving to be promoted to general, Col. Cathcart exploits military institutions only to polish his image. Granville Hicks describes Col. Cathcart as “a man who will stop at nothing to get promoted…who does not care how many men are killed if he can get a little favorable publicity” (172). Col. Cathcart increases the number of missions each time someone comes close in order to appear courageous to his superiors. Young states that Col. Cathcart “will gladly go on raising the number [of missions] to 6000, if that is what it takes to impress the generals” (Young). Attempting to gain recognition, Col. Cathcart invites the Chaplain to pray before the missions, but instead of praying for protection, Col. Cathcart has the Chaplain “pray for…a tighter bomb pattern” (192). Col. Cathcart is a dunce, and his superiors are not any more intelligent. Even though Col. Cathcart clearly uses his position to accomplish his personal goals, the catch-22 still applies. In this case, Catch-22 demonstrates that all soldiers have to obey their commanding officer.
Captain Black serves as the intelligence officer for Yossarian’s squadron. Like every other authority figure in the novel, Captain Black strives to gain power and status. He thinks that he is the logical choice for squadron commander after Maj. Duluth dies because “he [is] the squadron intelligence officer, which [means] he [is] more intelligent than everyone in the squadron” (112). The High Command chooses Major Major as the new squadron commander, making Capt. Black suspicious that Maj. Major is both a communist and “Henry Fonda” (112). In order to prove his theory and to exact revenge, Capt. Black begins the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade. The “crusade” requires all enlisted men and officers on combat duty to sign a loyalty oath in order to receive maps, pay, and eventually, chow. The “men in the squadron [discover] themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them” and begin to voice their opinions (113). The circular logic of Catch-22 appears again when Capt. Black replies “people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to [sign]” (113). In Capt. Black’s eyes, the crusade is working because Maj. Major is not signing the loyalty oaths, verifying that he is a communist. Maj. Major does not sign the loyalty oaths because Capt. Black will not allow him to do so, for “that would defeat the whole purpose of [the]…crusade” (114). The great crusade comes to an end when Major —– de Coverly returns from Rome and refuses to sign a loyalty oath for his food. Major —– de Coverly enters the mess hall and orders the mess officer to “Gimme eat…Give everybody eat!” (116). Even though Major —– de Coverly’s act was a “treacherous stab in the back,” Capt. Black views his “crusade” as a success for people to realize the “danger of Major Major,” and Col. Cathcart awards him with a letter of commendation.
Doc Daneeka is the squadron’s medical doctor whose “idea of a good time was to sulk” and worry about his own health (32). His two medical assistants, Gus and Wes, perform all of the day-to-day work. Every day, when Doc claims to feel sick, he stops by the medical tent and Gus and Wes “look him over” (33). They “never find anything wrong with him,” causing Doc to “lose confidence in Gus and Wes” and to consider having them “replaced by someone who could find something wrong” (33). Doc is not only a hypochondriac, but also a man with a great deal of self-pity, whose “constant lament” is “why me?” (34). Every time Yossarian approaches Doc with a medical or personal issue, he digresses from Yossarian’s problem and begins complaining about his own predicament. Doc abuses his authority again by directing pilots to enter his name in the flight logs in order to collect flight pay. The decision to alter the flight logs comes back to haunt Doc when the plane he is scheduled to be on “[flies] into a mountain” (339). The squadron assumes, logically, that Doc is dead since he “didn’t come down in a parachute” (339). Even though everyone in the squadron can see him, on paper and to the military, Doc is dead along with everyone else who perished on the plane (339). “He drew no pay or PX rations” or anything from supply, for dead men no longer have use for these items (343). Heller uses Doc to illustrate that power can corrupt even the medical personnel, the professionals who are supposedly the most dedicated to the men.
Major Major misuses his authority as squadron commander by not accepting the responsibility, or obligation to act, that is conventionally associated with that position. However, Maj. Major’s abuse of power is not due to personal interest, but rather to a lack of experience as a leader. After only four days in the Army as a private, “an I.B.M. machine with a sense of humor” promotes Pvt. Major to the rank of Major (86). Upon completing aviation training, Maj. Major leaves for Pianosa, where “rank [means] little to the men on combat duty” (88). The fact that rank is meaningless allows Maj. Major to engage in numerous activities with subordinates, for he does not have a command billet. The role of squadron commander is forced on Maj. Major only because he is already a Major, not for his leadership abilities. When Maj. Major learns of his new command billet, Col. Cathcart adds, “don’t think it means anything, because it doesn’t” (88). Instead of stepping up to the challenge of a new role, Maj. Major devises ways to avoid everyone in his squadron. As a leader, Maj. Major is “mediocre” to the point where people are “impressed by how unimpressive he [is]” (83).
The novel introduces Lieutenant Scheisskopf, an aviation training squadron commander, whose only goal is winning the weekly parades. Heller makes an interesting choice in naming this character, for “Scheisskopf” is the German word for “shithead.” Because of his obsession with parades and drills, Lt. Scheisskopf accomplishes very little training. The High Command promotes Lt. Scheisskopf through the ranks because it gives General Peckem a larger staff, not because of his abilities. As a Colonel under Gen. Peckem, Col. Scheisskopf’s main concern is if he will “be able to conduct parades every Sunday afternoon” (320). When Gen. Peckem informs Col. Scheisskopf that “parades are out of the question,” he then asks if he can “schedule the parades [and] then call them off” (321-323). Lt. Scheisskopf’s obsession with the parades also affects his personal life. Lt. Scheisskopf “longed desperately to win parades,” causing him to sit “up half the night…while his wife waited amorously for him” (72). In order to obtain revenge on her husband for his sexual apathy, Mrs. Scheisskopf sleeps with any willing cadet in Lt. Scheisskopf’s training squadron. The military utilizes parades and standard drills to enforce discipline and cultivate an immediate response to orders. Heller uses the character of Col. Scheisskopf to illustrate the mindlessness and pointlessness of marching “sixty or seventy…cadet squadrons until enough of them had collapsed to call it a day” (71).
Heller also uses the character of Lt. Scheisskopf to insult the military justice system. In Lt. Scheisskopf’s free time, he tries to recruit cadets to give false testimonies against Clevinger. Supposedly, Clevinger tried to overthrow the cadet officers the Lt. Scheisskopf had appointed. To Lt. Scheisskopf, Clevinger is dangerous because he “[has] a mind…people with minds tend to get pretty smart” (71). Even though Lt. Scheisskopf acquires huge amounts of testimony, he lacks “something to charge him with” (71). Regardless, Clevinger stands trial, where the Action Board utilizes the “catch-22” logic that one “[is] guilty…or [one] would not have been accused” (81). The charges brought against Clevinger include “breaking ranks while in formation, felonious assault…high treason, provoking, being a smart guy, [and] listening to classical music” because he had “stumbled while marching” (76). The lack of justice is not only shown in the charges against Clevinger, but also in the arrangement of the trial. Lt. Scheisskopf is a judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the “officer defending” Clevinger (76). Because the members of the Action Board have nothing better to do, they convict Clevinger and then try Popinjay, the court recorder, for he could not keep pace with the madness.
Heller reveals the futility and the worthlessness of the bureaucratic red tape that consumes the military through the bickering of General Dreedle and Gen. Peckem. Gen. Peckem is a handsome, 53-year-old man who suffers from verbosity and overuse of ceremonial language. Gen. Peckem “[is] always augmenting things” and “approaching events [are] never coming, but always upcoming” (319). According to Gen. Peckem, his “only fault [is] that he had no faults” (319). Even though Gen. Dreedle is on the same “side” of the war as Gen. Peckem, he believes that “Dreedle is the enemy” (323). Gen. Dreedle, the wing commander, is a mean, torturous man. He hates his “lousy son of a bitch” son-in-law only because he hates marriages, not because of the son-in-law (214). When Gen. Dreedle awards the naked Yossarian the Distinguished Flying Cross, he does not become upset with Yossarian’s insubordination because “he just won a medal…if he wants to receive it without any clothes on, what the hell” (218). Gen. Dreedle approves of soldiers not wearing their uniforms just to spite Gen. Peckem, who ordered everyone to “send [their] men into combat in full-dress uniform so they’ll make a good impression on the enemy when they are shot down” (219). Expecting immediate obedience from all who serve him, Gen. Dreedle is quick to anger those who cross him. When Major Danby fails to remain silent in the briefing room, Gen. Dreedle orders Col. Cathcart to “take him out and shoot him” (221). When Colonel Moodus attempts to tell Gen. Dreedle that he does not possess the authority to have someone shot, Gen. Dreedle retorts with “who the Hell says I can’t?” (222). Through the incompetence of Gen. Peckem and Gen. Dreedle, Heller shows that corruption in an organization penetrates all the way to the top of the chain of command.
Milo Minderbinder is a pilot in the squadron who volunteers for mess officer, who begins his own black market operation, and whose transactions are brilliant, and at the same time, insane. Not only does Heller use Milo to show how people can abuse their position, but also to represent the flaws of a capitalistic society. Using his position as mess officer to aid him, Milo forms a massive black market syndicate – Milo and Minderbinder Enterprises – that extends throughout Europe. The business syndicate that Milo forms begins with dealing in black market eggs, transforming into a worldwide enterprise in which, Milo claims, “everyone has a share” (231). Early in the novel, Milo shows his business genius when he buys and sells the eggs from Malta. Yossarian cannot understand how “Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit for five cents” (67). Milo’s initial business deals seem harmless, even advantageous to the squadron, for the “syndicate makes the profit” and “everyone has a share” (231). Even though Milo states the nature of his syndicate to be democratic, Seltzer states that the name Milo and Minderbinder Enterprises “points…to individual ownership and control” (190). At first, Milo’s syndicate seems like a little harmless profiteering, and like Yossarian, he bends the rules toward his own advantage. Through his dealings, Milo eventually becomes the mayor of several of the towns where he trades constantly. As Milo’s syndicate grows, it takes on a more menacing air. As stated by Hicks, Milo “steals the carbon dioxide cylinders that are used to inflate lifejackets, and takes the syrettes of morphine from the first-aid kits” to trade (172). Milo has his planes “bomb his own outfit” as part of a deal he makes with the Germans, for they “are also members in good standing of the syndicate” (257, 256). “The mad satire turns sour,” as declare by Anthony Burgess, when “an American airman bombs his own base on behalf of the Nazis” (140). The bombing run wounds and kills men on the ground, but because the syndicate profits and “everyone has a share,” everyone profits from the bombing, according to Milo (231). Milo’s reasons for attacking his own squadron are no more arbitrary than Col. Cathcart ambitiously volunteering his men for more missions. One could even argue that Milo’s actions are more rational than Col. Cathcart’s, for Milo receives a profit, while Col. Cathcart does not have a real chance at becoming a general. Milo’s personal goal drives him to form a profitable syndicate, even if men have to suffer in the process.
In Catch-22 not one person in a command position unselfishly cares for his men. Heller designed this phenomenon to reiterate the adage “power corrupts while an absolute power corrupts absolutely.” From a military standpoint, the leaders of military forces need to be admirable examples of responsibility and morality, especially in a time of war. The relationship between the officers and the enlisted men in a fighting unit should be that of a teacher to a scholar. The officers in charge in Catch-22 treat their subordinates as if they were slaves. Ultimately, the message that Heller communicates is that anyone who is in a position of influence – even in the civilian world – should know their subordinates and look out for their welfare.
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