How Does Joseph Heller Satirise Both Military Bureaucracy And
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Catch-22 was Joseph Hellers first novel and arose out of Hellers own experiences as a U.S. bombardier during World War II. It was published in 1961 and was subject to a great deal of criticism. It presented an unsentimental account of war, replacing the ideals of glory and honour with a nightmarish comedy of violence, bureaucracy and paradoxical madness. Most of the novel takes place in the last year of the war in Europe. It is set in Italy and is very much based on what actually happened, accurately depicting the capture of Rome and other such incidents.
Initially, the critical response to Joseph Hellers first novel was mixed, with some of the most prestigious reviews being quite negative. Richard G. Stern, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote that the novel “gasps for want of craft and sensibility” and that the book was “no novel.”
However, it could be said that these views were arrived at care of a misinterpretation of the story because, Catch 22, despite being met by a great deal of criticism, also received much praise. Nelson Algren (The Nation) found that the novel was not only antiwar but a repudiation of all the horror, greed, complacency, ignorance, and “endless cunning” in society. The New Republic called it “one of the most bitterly funny works in the language” and it became widely recognized as the greatest satirical work ever written.
It also came to be thought of as the signature novel of the 1960s and 70s, despite its World War II setting, spurring on Americans to question authority during two decades of hippies, protests and civil rights movements with Catch 22 fitting in perfectly. Its tone is shaped by the events of the 1950s (when it was written) and an attitude toward all wars, not just that one. Looking back, Heller recognized that World War II was a relatively popular war for most Americans, a factor in some critical rejection of the novel. Catch-22 grew in popularity during the years of the Vietnam War, when the general population became more attuned to Yossarians point of view.
Throughout the novel, the storys main protagonist (or antagonist depending on how you view his actions) is Yossarian, whom, along with his friends, must endure an exasperating and absurd existence defined by bureaucracy and brutality. It is bureaucracy which acts as the main antagonist. In the novel, it is represented by Colonel Cathcart and his commanding officers who constantly endanger the lives of the men under their command. The men are un-human resources in the eyes of their blindly ambitious superior officers. Colonel Cathcart and his commanding officers frame the unwritten rules of Catch-22 leaving the airmen in a no-win situation. It is the illogical laws of Catch-22 which emphasis the absurdity of bureaucracy.
The laws of Catch-22 are irrational and are designed to give the officers a power advantage and hence absolute control over the squadron. There is an abundance of examples of Catch-22 throughout the novel, which constantly recur to highlight the irrationality of what it represents.
One version of Catch-22 results in Yossarian having to continuously keep flying “combat mission after combat mission”; Doc Daneeka cannot ground him for insanity unless he requests him to do so, but, if he does so, he must be sane. This traps Yossarian in a paradox that determines whether he lives or dies, even though it is made only of words.
A more striking example is given by an old Italian woman in a ruined brothel: “They have a right to do anything we cant stop them from doing.” This is a defining statement, describing Catch-22 as something which doesnt actually exist. It is just the made-up name for an illogical argument, or rather, a series of illogical arguments designed to justify what is going on. It does, however, underpin the steadfast principle that might makes right.
This concept is further developed by the impotence of language in the novel. Snowdens death is an example of the way in which language has no power to comfort the characters. While Snowden is dying in the back of the plane, all Yossarian can think to say is “There! There!” When he is faced with the realities of death and the absurdity of its circumstances, language is unable to give him reassurance. It does, however, have the power to evade logic, trapping the squadron in an inescapable prison of bureaucracy through Catch-22. Its purpose is to keep the squadron in the air (“regulations do say you have to obey every order. Thats the catch. Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, youd still have to fly them, or youd be guilty of disobeying an order of his”) and keep the power in the hands of the officers. Catch-22 even contains a clause preventing people from reading Catch-22. This demonstrates the greatness and uniqueness of the concept as well as the meaninglessness. Yossarian understands that it is nothing but words and that it doesnt really exist. He is however, still a prisoner of Catch-22 and the illogical framework of bureaucracy that it represents.
There are also less obvious examples of Heller emphasizing the preposterousness of bureaucracy through Catch-22. The actions of Major Major are one such example: he will only see people in his office when he is not there. “With a little ingenuity and vision, he had made it all but impossible for anyone in the squadron to talk to him, which was just fine with everyone, he noticed, since no one wanted to talk to him anyway.” By means of his own version of Catch-22, Major Major refuses logic, adhering to the bureaucrats way of thinking. The Chaplain and Doc Daneeka are also caught up in their own adaptations of Catch-22. War undermines the premises of their professions and yet calls upon them to practise those professions in the name of war.
Another example of the insanity of bureaucracy comes from the bombing missions which later turn out to be solely for the purpose of taking photographs. The men risked their lives in order to clear foliage so a better aerial photograph was possible or to make a lovely picture of an explosion. This emphasizes the dehumanization of war as well as the detachment of military bureaucracy from the tragedy of war. This unnecessary and illogical task is further emphasized by the actions of Colonel Cathcart when he volunteers Yossarians squadron for various missions in order to earn himself a promotion which he appears unable to achieve.
Even after the war has been essentially won, the squadron must continue flying their missions and at the same time risking their lives. The bureaucrats, however, do not reply to any attempts made