Catch-22 is an absurdist war novel. I suppose it’s kind of like MASH in the way it plays the irrationality of war for laughs, but there’s more of a surreal or dreamlike quality to it. In a work like MASH, humorously unlikely things happen, but there’s nothing that’s really impossible, at least that I recall. Catch-22 pushes the absurdity farther. The message, I suppose, is that war is so irrational that the only way to convey it is through a story that is itself irrational.
The book recounts the Army life of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the Army Air Corps, and his fellows in the 256th Squadron based on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa, near Italy during World War II. (The absurdity starts with an author’s note at the start of the book: Pianosa is a real place, but it’s too tiny an island for anything remotely close to the size of this base to fit on it.)
I see the novel as primarily a work of humor, but there’s no question it has a serious side. It’s a black comedy, written as a series of bizarre character sketches and bizarre incidents—out of chronological order and only vaguely and partially adding up to a conventional story—where the reality of war appears in occasional horrible flashes.
One of those horrible moments occurs when a tail gunner named Snowden is killed in Yossarian’s plane, dying in his arms. There are frequent flashbacks to the incident throughout the book, gradually filling in more of the details.
I didn’t find that the most powerful of the dark moments, though. There were other incidents that got through to me more. In thinking about why, I think it may be that they happen fairly late in the book, when it was more or less established in my mind that these guys at the base are sort of happy-go-lucky goofballs bouncing from one comic misadventure to another—in some ways likable people, in some ways too unrealistic to respond to as likable or unlikable.
And then in that context, all of a sudden something happens to show a darkness or a depth in one of them. For instance, one of the characters ups and rapes and murders an Italian girl, portrayed as the most simple and innocent of civilians. Or in what maybe hit me the hardest, a pilot who blows off steam by routinely scaring his mates by buzzing as close as he can over them at the base when they least expect it—antics that are tolerated but certainly not appreciated—on one occasion loses control of his plane just long enough for it to dip down and slice a man up in one of the propellers, after which he circles about indecisively, presumably embarrassed by the result of his little joke and reluctant to come down and face the consequences, and then proceeds to fly headlong into a mountainside to commit suicide.
As a result of all the horror, all the irrationality, all the death, but especially the death of Snowden, Yossarian has pretty much lost it. You can say it’s given him enough of a shock to drive him insane, but the sense you get from the book is that the author sees it more as having driven him sane. He no longer wants anything to do with the war. He wants to escape from it physically if he can, but in the interim he at least detaches emotionally from it. He drifts through the book as through a dream, observing it all, recognizing at some level the absurdity of it, but not letting himself feel much about it anymore, beyond maybe a mild bemusement.
It is and it isn’t a moral awakening. He’d deny that it is. He doesn’t start espousing pacifist principles, or trying to arouse others, or trying to counteract the evil he sees around him, or questioning which side of the war it’s better to be on, or contemplating how much moral weight should be given to means versus ends, or any of that. He just wants out. He’s had his fill of war, and he wants out.
Challenged on why he wants out, he has seemingly perfectly logical responses at the ready, the irony being that you would hope that participating in a war would be the peculiar choice in need of justification, whereas in our upside down world, it is those who resist participating in war who are treated as puzzling cases.
Why do you want out? There are total strangers straining every nerve trying to kill me. Why insist on getting out now, when you’re right on the verge of having flown enough missions to get to go home legitimately? I and others in the squadron have been close multiple times before, and every time the colonel in charge of such things simply raises the required number of missions, so it means nothing that I’m close to the current number. Don’t you agree that Hitler must be defeated, and that all of us must do our part in the fight against him? I’ve already done way more than what could be considered one person’s share in that fight.
But as I say, the bulk of the book is comedy, and so is not (directly) about the horrors of war or about Yossarian’s reaction to them. Much of it is an indictment of the Army, presented through symbolism and exaggeration as a hopelessly inefficient and corrupt entity.
(Or maybe not so exaggerated. I was tickled when I came across a remark from a veteran in a YouTube comment section under a clip from the movie version of Catch-22 wherein he claimed that in a long career in the military, he had come across every one of these characters, though thankfully not all at the same time or in the same squad.)
I’ll mention just a few such oddballs and odd incidents that I found particularly amusing or memorable, but there are many more.
One character has the last name Major. When he was born, his father insisted on giving him both a first name and a middle name of Major, making his name Major Major Major. He bore a strong resemblance to Henry Fonda, allegedly from birth—which is a little disturbing to picture—but for some reason he was denigrated for this. It was kind of like he was treated as someone who was trying to look like Henry Fonda but fell just short, in a way that was somehow blameworthy or offensive.
Major joined the Army, and then shortly after that he was inadvertently promoted from private or corporal or whatever he was supposed to be to Major due to some clerical error. (More specifically, it’s attributed in the book to a “joke” played by one of those early mainframe IBM computers.) So now he’s Major Major Major Major. Or just Major Major. He is put in charge of the 256th.
He’s an intimidated, anxious fellow who is absolutely unprepared for this accidental authority, and does everything he can to avoid having to exercise it. For example, he instructs the sergeant outside his office that if anyone comes by wishing to see him, they are to be instructed to wait, and are then not to be shown in until he has left. The sergeant asks for clarification to make sure he understands correctly that visitors wishing to see him may not come in while he’s there but may come in when he is not, and he is assured that yes, those are his orders. If the sergeant is bothered or confused by this he doesn’t show it, seemingly treating it as the kind of absurdity he’s come to expect from the Army. Major Major then takes to entering and exiting his office through a window, so that he won’t risk being accosted by any poor soul waiting indefinitely to see him.
The higher up one goes in the Army hierarchy, the more people are motivated by ego and political one-upmanship, or just eccentricity, and not by trying to win the war or further any noble cause. The implication is that if the result is a successful war effort, then that is mere accident, kind of like how capitalism allegedly brings about good consequences even if each of the individual participants in the system is a greedy son of a bitch looking out only for himself, or perhaps especially if that is the case.
A good example is General Scheisskopf. He is obsessed with military parades, which he organizes with great frequency stateside. When he is sent overseas he is distraught until he is assured that he can continue to focus on parades. So he sees to it that the men under him—who are supposed to be fighting a war—spend as much time as possible participating in his parades.
I also got a kick out of Doc Daneeka, the 256th’s physician. Whenever any of the men comes to him with a medical complaint, he responds in a “You think you’ve got problems?!” manner by ranting about all of his own problems.
Doc is required to log a certain number of hours flying, which he is loath to do, so he falsifies a plane record to make it appear he was on board. Alas, the plane crashes, one consequence of which is the Army now regards him as deceased, despite his constant protestations to the contrary. His pay ceases, his wife and family are informed of his demise, and people increasingly ignore him, since officially he is, after all, not there.
Major _____ de Coverley (which is how his name is always written) is a mysterious character who no one seems to know anything about, except that he’s around a lot and he spends a lot of time pitching horseshoes on Pianosa. He has such an intimidating manner that no one has the guts to ask him anything about himself, including his first name. He has an uncanny way of showing up in the lead whenever American troops march through a newly taken major city, which brings him to the attention of those higher up in the Army hierarchy, but despite their best efforts they too are unable to figure out who in the world he is.
Speaking of capitalism, one of the major characters, I think second only to Yossarian in how much attention he gets in the book, is also one of the most disturbing ones. Milo is nominally a sergeant in charge of the 256th’s mess hall, but in reality he is the prototypical salesman wheeler-dealer, running a surreal massive enterprise that involves him flying all over the world haggling over this and that.
Clearly meant to represent capitalism and its relentless amoral pursuit of profits that enables it to see opportunity even in war, Milo is always on the move, playing every possible angle to benefit himself. Somehow he even comes out on top when he buys something and then sells it for less than he bought it for. (There’s a comically absurd pseudo-explanation of how he does this, which involves going through multiple other middlemen, not to mention having a piece of the entity he bought from and the entity he sold to, as well as the other middlemen, but it makes about as little sense as the notion that you could take a lot of nearly worthless mortgages and by packaging them together and buying and selling them a few times turn them into a way to get filthy rich.)
It eventually reaches the point where Milo is selling supplies and information both to the Americans and their enemies, arranging it so that he can make money off of the bombing of a base and the defending of the same base.
He always insists that the men should cooperate with him because he’s doing it all for the benefit of some mysterious syndicate of which they are all a part. Thus when he profits, they all profit.
At times—when it’s convenient for Milo to describe it as such—this supposed syndicate seems to include not just the men of the 256th, but the whole Army, or perhaps all the Allies including civilians, or perhaps the entire world. Always the idea is that everyone should help Milo, because when Milo wins everyone wins.
Unfortunately no more details about this supposed syndicate are ever forthcoming, and no benefits that anyone other than Milo derive from it appear to ever go beyond the symbolic or theoretical. So it’s kind of like trickle down economics—we should all strive for the further enrichment of the richest among us, because, somehow, we’ll all benefit from their success.
I mostly liked the humor of Catch-22, and mostly found the occasional non-humorous aspects effective, but at times reading it I sensed my attention flagging. It’s the kind of humor that can become unappealingly repetitive, like, OK, here’s another vignette about an odd character doing odd things; given that these vignettes seem to do little to move the central story along—insofar as there is a central story—how many are going to be piled on top of each other? Is there any reason for there to be ten instead of five, or twenty instead of ten, or forty instead of twenty?
So as I was working my way through the book, I felt like maybe 463 pages of this was excessive, that maybe it could have been at least as good at half that length.
When I look back on it as a whole now, though, I’m not so sure. I sense that I have a certain attachment to Catch-22 that is out of proportion to the degree to which I enjoyed it as I was reading it. If it were significantly shorter, perhaps I wouldn’t feel that way. Maybe I needed to spend 463 pages in this alternate universe for that attachment to grow.