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Catch-22 Essay, Research Paper

Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder is in charge of the mess halls at a military base on the island of Pianosa. There he builds his own syndicate, which sells food to the personnel. Though his superiors are impressed with the work he does, other people, including Yossarian, are outraged by some of his ruthless, sometimes even crooked business practices. Indeed, Milo stops at nothing to get his way?he even manages to convince his superiors that it is in everyone’s best interests when he makes a deal with the Germans to bomb his own squadron to make a profit. Yossarian is outraged at this?he blames Milo for the killing of the “dead man in Yossarian’s tent,” and at one point, tells Milo, “Milo, a man in my tent was killed on that mission before he could even unpack his bags” (254). Civilians in many different places grant him honorary titles, ranging from Mayor to Assistant-Governor General, when his black market practices help sagging local economies. Although he is generous enough to give food to obscure people like Major Major and Doc Daneeka when he is supposedly dead, Milo’s profit-making interests eventually take over every part of him. When he must decide between loyalty to Yossarian and a business deal with Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, Milo decides to abandon Yossarian in favor of the business deal. When he finds himself having trouble selling Egyptian cotton he buys, he even goes so far as to sell chocolate-covered cotton to the mess halls in order to make profit, no matter how indigestible it is.

Clearly, Heller does not like Milo’s business practices, and it would be hard for anyone to like them. After all, is it really okay to kill even your own people just to make a profit? Milo tries to justify it by saying that he was not going after any particular person, “I didn’t kill him! . . . I wasn’t even there that day, I tell you. Do you think I was down there on the ground firing an antiaircraft gun when the planes came over?” (254) Yossarian realizes that this is the same sort of logic which people use to justify any killing in war. Yossarian does not buy it. When he first arrived at Pianosa, he was just as willing to do bombing missions as anyone. However, it took the death of his friend, Snowden to convince him otherwise. To the reader, at first, Snowden’s death does not seem like anything particularly big. But his secret is finally revealed: ” . . . he (Yossarian) gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. . . . The spirit gone, man is garbage.” (442). In other words, when a man dies, he is essentially nothing more than a bunch of mass?the soul makes the man worth more than the sum of his parts when he is alive. Take away the soul, and he is worth about as much as any piece of common matter. As Mr. Hallford once said, “Snowden’s secret is therefore one of the simplest, and at the same time, one of the most profound secrets in the novel.” Yossarian therefore comes to realize that death in wartime ultimately boils down to the killing of individuals, in spite of what people like Milo say.

Yossarian is so eager to get out of combat duty that he tries almost anything?he tries to get himself certified mentally insane, he goes to see Major Major about it, and he goes to Colonel Cathcart about it. Colonel Cathcart is so tired of Yossarian that he offers to let him go home if Yossarian will praise him publicly. Yossarian refuses to do this.

Heller also clearly implies that there is quite a stark difference between the ethics inherent in wartime and the ethics we believe exist. Heller clearly thinks that wars are possible only when a government is able to make the people insane by telling them that they can make a profit by dying for their country. Yossarian supposedly becomes sane by coming to realize that death is personal?that without the soul, a man is worth no more than any other big hunk of mass.

Yossarian’s commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, wants to be promoted to a general so badly that he too, gives no thought to the personal aspect of death. He thinks he can display some individual initiative by continually risking the lives of his men, volunteering them for dangerous missions, and raising the number of missions they must do, despite the orders from Group Headquarters that the men need only to fly forty missions. Yossarian finds that these sorts of ethics simply do not hold up in the “sane” world, and this is why he wants to quit. Colonel Cathcart becomes so tired of Yossarian’s senses that he offers to let Yossarian go home if in return, he will praise Colonel Cathcart publicly, and make him look good. Yossarian decides not to accept the deal, perhaps understandably, for who would want to give praise to the very people who are trying to kill him?

The world of business during war is also clearly criticized by Heller. As with the military aspect of war, one may wonder how such insane business situations can be admired by so many people. Who in their right mind would really want to support a person who agrees to bomb his own squadron for his own profit? And yet, Yossarian once again, is the only one who is sane enough to see the insanity of Milo’s actions. Though the business-military relationship is seen on the surface as good, Heller shows that under the surface, it is not what it first appears to be.

Though the relationship between business and military almost always shows economically as being a wonderful thing, Catch-22 shows that behind the obvious, there is a very bad side to the relationship, which flourishes when in the absence of everyday morals, characters like Milo are allowed to have their way.

The novel is valuable in showing that the business of war is death, in more ways than one. If a person does not realize this, then he is bound to lose all of his humanity, as did Milo. By coming to realize this, as Yossarian did, a person can regain his humanity, and stop assisting in a situation that seems completely insane.


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