Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is arguably one of the most influential books of its time. Written during a very difficult period in Heller’s life, the novel captures what was to be a pivotal moment for American culture, as well as American history. Catch-22 follows Captain John Yossarian as he peels back the traditional heroism of war to reveal sheer madness. With heavy notes of satire, Heller presents several different themes throughout the novel as we see Yossarian thrust into the insane trappings of a real catch-22, sometimes masking the symbolism of what the book really stands for, which is what war can really do to a person when it creates a Catch-22. People have choices: they can either rise above their situation, even in times of war, or they can allow war to destroy them, succumbing to the circumstances a Catch-22 would present. Captain Yossarian showed that though war is sometimes unavoidable, compromising one’s morals is not. Milo Minderbinder is a character who exemplifies how easy it is to apathetically place pledging allegiance behind profit in a time of war, when it can be difficult to distinguish between allies and enemies.
Catch-22 lends nearly all of its content to analysis. Its characters themselves are representations of deeper meanings Joseph Heller was hoping to point out to his readers, such as self-preservation. The main character, Captain John Yossarian, is a good example. He is the protagonist of the story, somehow a member of his squadron but also ostracized by its members. He engages in military activity with these men but they think he is crazy; they even suspect something unusual about his Assyrian name, having never heard it before. Being singled out so immediately makes us expect that Yossarian stands for something exceptional in the book; we begin to expect something more from him. Heroes are often singled out at first. However, he really is the protagonist and the traditional antihero. His characteristics do not match that of a typical hero. For example he is never willing to himself in danger to save others. In fact, he spends the entire novel, with one exception, trying to avoid risking his life. In the military he sees men risk their lives for ridiculous reasons and finally realizes that, though it is untraditional, preserving his own life might truly be considered heroic at this point. Needless killing and sacrifice does nothing for the war effort, and Yossarian realizes at one point that he can only save himself.
Yossarian’s desire to preserve his own life begins to create an inner conflict when his squadron members die. He is traumatized by several losses, particularly Snowden’s. He pities Snowden in death but also finally realizes that his body is just as fragile as Snowden’s. Without realizing it, Yossarian has spent much of his life believing that he may not ever have to actually face death. In essence he realizes that though he is actively trying to save his own life he could die at any time, without having a choice in the matter. Then Yossarian is finally offered a choice to give his own life in exchange for the safety of his squadron, or to sacrifice his squadron and save himself. Though his idea of self-preservation has always been simple, the compassion he feels for his squadron complicates things. This feeling creates a classic Catch-22: Morality and the concern for others can endanger a man’s life, but life is not worth living without such morality or concern for others. In the end Yossarian chooses to flee from this choice by leaving the squadron and the war, eliminating sacrifice of any kind and keeping his idea of self-preservation intact. He rises above the Catch-22, having realized the direction of his own moral compass, and makes a decision to no longer take any part in the bureaucratic corruption he was once a part of.
Milo Minderbinder is another noteworthy character who lends himself to analysis throughout the novel. He is another element of the book that plays two sides, seeming a genius while simultaneously insane. Milo begins a business that starts modestly in black-market eggs. Quickly it becomes a worldwide enterprise that Milo insists everybody must share. The novel as up until now explained that the country’s bureaucracy cheats and lies for the sake of its own gain, even when claiming lives of the innocent in an attempt to perpetuate the heroism of war. Because of that and the fact that Milo is an underdog makes it easy to cheer him on as he begins to turn a profit under the government’s nose. Much like the Captain, Milo twists the rules so they work for his own gain, justifying this by weighing it against the corruption of the bureaucracy he has witnessed: Colonel Cathcart orders men to a certain death in order to get a promotion which makes Milo’s gains on the black market seem not only logical but reasonable to him. At least Milo is not killing anybody.
As Milo’s business endures, it becomes ominous. He seemingly forgets about Cathcart’s actions, bombing his own squadron as part of a deal struck with the Germans. When many of his own men are wounded the reader begins to realize that what began as an innocent venture to profit without the corruption of government has turned into something evil. As we learn more about him we see that he represents capitalist free enterprise as it spins out of control. However, Milo’s assault on his own squadron could be further justifiable because, unlike Cathcart, he was guaranteed a payoff. Cathcart ordered men to their death without any real promise of becoming a general while Milo was certain that he would be paid for his actions. In this way Milo’s character becomes a vessel to show how capitalism surpasses political dogma. Throughout the war in the novel, the reader is not given any substantial clues confirming why anybody is fighting. The soldiers do not have any particular sway when it comes to fighting for the morals or ideals of their homeland. Milo sees this apathy and begins making a profit off of his own country as well as the countries of his enemies; he is willing to pledge allegiance to whichever country proves more profitable. The deal struck with the Germans, ensuring his own men will be bombed, shows his utter disregard for the moral choice in “sides” during a time of war as well. Milo’s actions show that even in a time of war it is possible, if not probable, for some to place a higher value on money than on a human life or allegiance to their home country.
It is clear that the corruption of bureaucracy during a time of war is a standing theme throughout the novel. A Catch-22 suggests that the characters would be placed in difficult situations and analysis of the novel explains how different people act in these situations. Yossarian was an eccentric captain who decided the best way to take a stand against the corruption and senseless death around him would be to preserve his own life. Even upon finding how desperately he cared for his squadron he chose to leave the war, and the Catch-22 he found himself in when faced with the choice to watch his squadron die or die himself. Minderbinder was an arguably weaker man who, when faced with his own Catch-22. Minderbinder was confronted with deciding between claiming allegiance to his home country or turning a profit on each country involved in the war. When weighing his options, he became disgusted with the corruption he witnessed in his squadron and chose to make a profit off of his allies as well as his enemies. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 suggests that war creates the ultimate Catch-22, potentially allowing a man to realize his inner moral compass, as Yossarian did, or become what he has already grown to hate, as Minderbinder ultimately became.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.