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In all of history, no war seems to have touched the minds of people everywhere as
much as World War II has. This war brought about some of the worst violations of human rights
ever seen. The German military created a system for the public to follow, and if the individual
opposed, he was oppressed. This kind of mentality is presented in the novel, Catch-22 (1955).
Joseph Heller uses the insane situations of the setting and his characters to show a unique
perspective on World War II.
A small Army Air Corps base serves as the setting for Catch-22. It is set on a fictitious
island called Pianosa. The island is described as very small and is located in the Mediterranean
Sea, off the coast of Elba, Italy. It is set in the time of World War II. The island almost serves as
a microcosm of the war taking place around it. This setting accommodates nearly all of the
hardships being faced by the victims of WWII. The Air Corps dominates this island and its soldier
inhabitants. A system is established and it must be obeyed by all the soldiers. This system is kepy
alive through a ?catch-22?. Basically the catch-22 is a trap set up by the military bureaucracy to
keep all of the soldiers flying in battle. It is best summed up in a piece of dialogue from the novel.
It is shared between the main character, Yossarian, and the base?s doctor, Daneeka:
?Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach.
?Is Orr crazy?? ?He sure is,? Doc Daneeka said. ?Can you
ground him?? ?I sure can. But first he has to ask me to.
That’s part of the rule.? ?Then why doesn’t he ask you to??
?Because he’s crazy,? Doc Daneeka said. ?He has to be crazy
to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s
had. Sure I can ground him. But first he has to ask me to.?
?And then you can ground him?? Yossarian asked. ?No.
Then I can’t ground him.? ?You mean there’s a catch??
?Sure there’s a catch,? Doc Daneeka replied. ?Catch-22. Anyone
who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.? ?( Heller, 46)
This bureaucratic trap is accepted by most of the naive soldiers. This is why the military
is able to make the soldiers do whatever they want them to do. The characters are persuaded to
believe in the system rather than oppose it. Yossarian seems to be the only one who sees the
insanity of this situation.
This scenario is almost like the one initiated by Adolph Hitler in Germany at this time.
Hitler saw the people of Germany as impressionable and easily swayed. He used propaganda to
make them do whatever he wanted. It was through this course of action that 6 million Jewish
people were mass murdered. Heller makes it all the more ironic that this same kind of mentality is
being used by the American military in his novel, and he projects his attitude towards war through
this irony. Heller portrays the military as a self-contradictory and oppressive force. He sees the
military as taking away a soldier?s individuality.
The struggle for individuality by each character is evident throughout the novel. Their
experiences make the scenario believable to the reader. Each character represents an attitude in
the system. Milo Minderbinder and Colonel Cathcart are great representatives of the military. To
them, the soldiers are seen as tools to further their careers. Milo Minderbinder, a military
authority figure, is in charge of business decisions made during the war. He uses his powers to
create a syndicate called the ?M&M syndicate.? It?s purpose is to profit any way it can off the
war. In the process, Milo increases his own personal wealth. Milo?s business tactics are
ridiculous as well. At one point, he suggests the soldiers eat chocolate-covered cotton he
received from Egypt in order to cut back on food expenses. In another instance, he trades all of
the men?s silk parachutes for eggs. His tactics often endanger the soldiers? lives. The most
outrageous of his schemes occurs when he orders the bombing of his own base in order to fulfill
his end of a bargain with the Germans. Milo could also represent the element of greed in WWII.
When Hitler dominated Germany, his mastery obsession wasn?t satisfied. His sights were set on
ruling the entire world. Milo poses as a representation of this kind of greed in the story.
Colonel Cathcart, the main decision-maker of the base, also exploits the troops, but for
different reasons. He wants to use the soldiers to advance his own rank. Like Milo, he has no
problem with putting his soldiers? lives in danger ;in fact, he purposely sends his men on the most
dangerous missions. He does this so his superiors will be impressed. He hopes that will result in
promotion. He constantly raises the number of missions the troops have to fly; therefore, he
keeps the ?catch? activated.
Yossarian is the main character. He is the one who rebels against the system. He tries to
stay out of combat as much as he can. He resorts to insane behavior such as refusing to wear
clothing, etc. Yossarian shows that the only sane response to the system is to act insane. Belief
in the importance of human life is one thing that keeps him alive throughout the chaos. He
sympathizes with his fellow soldiers and tries to maintain their individuality as well as his own.
Yossarian feels he is the only one that sees the horrifying nature of the system and
becomes separated from it. The system eventually overcomes Yossarian and he is forced to end it
all by jumping in a small boat; attempting to row to neutral Sweden. This kind of behavior was
typical during WWII. Some soldiers could not endure the hardships of war and were forced to
resort to irrational methods to cope with it. Some committed suicide, others avoided combat by
abandoning their squadrons. Whatever the circumstance, WWII was an insane
time for nearly all the world.
Heller?s situations presented in the setting and the use of his characters create a unique
perspective of society?s reaction to war. His attitudes of war are evident throughout the novel.
He wanted to paint a picture of the absurdity of battle and man?s behavior during it. Many acts of
absurdity occurred during this war, and most of them are portrayed in this setting and through
these characters. This work is truly a reflection of our own mentality in a time of insanity.
Works Cited :
American Writers, Supplement IV, Part 1: Maya Angelou to Linda Hogan,
?Joseph Heller?: Copyright 1996 by Charles Scribner?s and Sons
New York, NY.
DISCOVERING AUTHORS, Gale Research Inc. 1996; excerpted and
republished in Discovering Authors Modules [CD-ROM]
(Detroit): Gale Research, 1996.
Frank, Mike. “Enos and Thanatos in Catch-22.” Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Ed. Roger Matuz. Vol.11. (77-87) Detroit: Gale, 1990.
Hasley, Louis. “Dramatic Tension in Catch-22.” Contemporary Literary
Criticism. Vol. 8 (173) , Ed. Roger Matuz. Detroit: Gale. 1990.
Heller, Joseph. The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism.
Twentieth-Century American Literature Vol. 3. New York.
Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Dell Publishing, 1955, 1961
Kennard, Jean E. “Joseph Heller: At War with Absurdity.” Contemporary
Literary Criticism.(75-87) Ed. Roger Matuz. Detroit:L Gale 1990.
Pearson, Carol. “Catch-22 & the Debasement of Language.”Contemporary
Literary Criticism. (277)Matuz . Detroit: L Gale 1990.
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