By Jim Campbell
July 25, 2018
Catch 22 used in today’s language can be best summed up by the phrase, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 details the physical and psychological struggles of a young airman named Yossarian, who feigns illness and madness in an attempt to avoid being killed over World War II Italy.
Realizing that the war is putting him in personal danger, Yossarian mounts a series of protests against it.
At first, his protests are passive, as when he feigns illness and seeks refuge in an army field hospital.
At the risk of spoiling this article, Yossarian played by Alan Arkin has a propensity for walking around naked, especially when he is to be awarded a medal or commendation.
Later, he refuses to fly bombing missions, goes AWOL, and attempts escape, by inflatable rubber lifeboat, from Italy to Sweden.
Catch-22 features a dizzying array of characters, each having a unique dysfunctional relationship with the military bureaucracy that Heller rails against.
Yossarian fights against the system because it does not take him into account.
Orr, one of Yossarian’s peers, who shares Yossarian’s distaste for the war, successfully turns the military’s complete disregard for him into a tool that eventually enables him to escape.
In contrast, Milo Minderbinder, one of the more insidious characters, harnesses the system for his own personal gain, counting on the self-interest of others to divert their attention from his ruthless profiteering.
One of the most haunting characters in the novel is the soldier in white.
Completely wrapped, like a mummy, in strip bandages, the soldier in white first appears as a patient at the field hospital where Yossarian is hiding from the war.
The events take place in Pianosa, a small Italian island where an Air Force bombing group is sweating out the closing months of World War II, and Rome, where the flyers go on leave to stage latter-day Roman orgies in a city filled with prostitutes.
Men who behave like madmen are awarded medals.
In a world of madmen at war, the maddest—or the sanest—of all is Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier of the 256th Squadron.
Deciding that death in war is a matter of circumstance and having no wish to be victimized by any kind of circumstance, he tries by every means he can think of—including malingering, defiance, cowardice, and irrational behavior—to get out of the war.
That is his resolve after the disastrous raid over Avignon, when Snowden, the radio-gunner, was shot almost in two, splashing his blood and entrails over Yossarian’s uniform and teaching the bombardier the cold, simple fact of man’s mortality.
For some time after that, Yossarian refuses to wear any clothes, and when General Dreedle, the wing commander, arrives to award the bombardier a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism, military procedure is upset because Yossarian wears no uniform on which to pin the medal.
Yossarian’s logic of non-participation is so simple that everyone thinks him crazy, especially when he insists that “they” are trying to murder him.
His insistence leads to an argument with Clevinger, who is bright and always has an excuse or an explanation for everything.
When Clevinger wants to know who Yossarian thinks is trying to murder him, the bombardier says that all of “them” are, and Clevinger says that he has no idea who “they” can be.
Yossarian goes off to the hospital, complaining of a pain in his liver.
If he has jaundice, the doctors will discharge him; if not, they will send him back to duty.
Yossarian spends some of his time censoring the enlisted men’s letters.
On some, he signs Washington Irving’s name as censor; on others, he crosses out the letter but adds loving messages signed with the chaplain’s name.
The hospital would be a good place to stay for the rest of the war were it not for a talkative Texan and a patient so cased in bandages that Yossarian wonders at times whether there is a real body inside.
When he returns to his squadron, he learns that Colonel Cathcart, the group commander, raised the number of required missions to fifty.