Satire is often used by writers to express their discontent towards a subject in a humorous way. Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, satirizes war and its implications on society and man himself. Heller reveals the dehumanizing aspect of war, not the glory of it. He makes a social comment on the corruptive, self-fulfilling, irrational side of war that is often disregarded or dismissed. As he sheds light upon the darker part of war the universal qualities of mankind are revealed. In the novel Catch-22, the universal qualities of failure, corruption and irrationality are expressed in a satirical manner.
The protagonist Yossarian is an antihero as he is unsuccessful in changing his situation. Yossarian is a lead bombardier pilot in World War II and becomes consumed with the fact that people he has not even met keep trying to kill him. He is convinced to “remain alive forever or die in the attempt” (Heller, 89). The more combat missions Yossarian flies the more intense his struggle with life becomes. Yossarian is constantly frustrated with his situation. One of his frustrations is the small crawlway leading out of the plane used in the event of an emergency. He believes “it is an obstacle put there by providence as part of the plot that would destroy him” (Heller, 57). Also during one of Yossarian’s flight he goes over the treacherous city Bologna against his will, but fulfilling the mission requirements. Suddenly black smoke is seen surrounding the plane and at any moment the plane could explode. Yossarian knew there was “nothing he could do but sit there like an idiot and watch the ugly black puffs smashing up to kill him” (Heller, 156). Yossarian is considered an antihero due to his lack of intelligence at improving his situation. Furthermore, his profound fear of dying in action clutters his mind and any room for quick, decisive, critical thought becomes lost. His theory that the entire world is plotting a conspiracy to kill him is a disillusioned one. Although, Yossarian fails to realize that “there was too many dangers for Yossarian to keep track of. There was Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo for example, and they were all out to kill him” (Heller, 181). The only plan Yossarian conjures up is to pretend he has a liver condition allowing him temporary absences from his duties as a bombardier. He then gets admitted into the hospital and then, ironically, watches other soldiers and lieutenants wounded in combat and die. “Yossarian ran right into the hospital, determined to remain there forever rather than fly one mission more” (Heller, 175). Yossarian is a soldier lost in a world plotting for his annihilation. His inability to fight life for his life and lack of adequate planning deems him a failure.
Milo Minderbinder, an avid entrepreneur in charge of running the syndicate alludes to the corruptive, materialistic tendencies mankind possesses. At the young age of twenty-seven Milo has accomplished every stockbroker’s dream on Wallstreet, wealth and power are at his fingertips. His syndicate has expanded globally at an exponential rate increasing trade routes and net profits. Due to such prosperity and fame, Milo becomes greatly loved; he is awarded the “Assistant Governor-General” (Heller, 247) in Malta and his name engraved on a lustrous gold plaque. It read “Major Sir Milo Minderbinder” (Heller, 247). He is also the “Caliph of Baghdad, the Imam of Damascus, and the Shiek of Araby” (Heller, 248). Everywhere he goes, he is placed on a pedestal and treated like a God. The secret behind M and M enterprises’ immense success is its policy. The syndicate benefits and makes profits; therefore, everyone benefits which is ideally similar to democracy. All the people within a nation is what the government is comprised of and each member has a voice. It sounds beautiful. When Milo boasts about his perfect syndicate saying, “the syndicate benefits when I benefit, because everybody has a share” (Heller, 242), how could anyone possibly see anything negative. Milo’s intentions are good in that his marketing strategies are used to benefit every shareholder in the syndicate yet, the idea of business expansion and soaring profits drive Milo to the brink of stupidity and his plans go sour. Eventually, “business boomed on every battlefront” (Heller, 263). Milo does business with both the Americans and the Germans.
“Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with anti-aircraft fire against his own attack” (Heller, 265)
Milo emphasized the fact that profits greatly rose and it did not matter whether hundreds of people died or which side won since it represented an important victory for private enterprise. This reflects the values of many prestigious corporate owners who will take any measures necessary to enhance profits and take out the competition. At this point Milo realized “a fantastic profit from both halves of his project” (Heller, 265). He then made another contract with the Germans, but this time to bomb his own squadron. The true horror and devastation of Milo alleged business venture become apparent.
” A cluster of fragmentation bombs exploded in the yard in the officers club and punched jagged holes in the side of the wooden building and in the bellies and backs of row of lieutenants and captains standing at the bar” (Heller, 268).
Even the observers who are not easily moved couldn’t stomach to see a man bombing his own men and planes. It is absolutely heart wrenching and ludicrous. Everyone was in favour of punishing Milo. He faced imminent persecution “until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made” (Heller, 269). He was able to reimburse the government for all the devastation to property and people that he caused and even had enough capital to continue buying Egyptian cotton. The greatest part of the deal was there was no need to reimburse the government since “in a democracy, the government is the people” (Heller, 269). Without a doubt, Milo Minderbinder is the world’s most prosperous twentieth century entrepreneur, firmly upholding the very basis of capitalism.
Joseph Heller’s novel displays the irrational nature of mankind. One of the cities that was strategically bombed was Bologna. The soldiers knew that fighting Bologna was the equivalent of fighting a pack of wolves for a slab of raw meat. The chances of survival were less than fifty percent due to the city’s superior anti-aircraft guns. As the men were about to embark on their mission a rainstorm showers the area. The mission was postponed and the men returned to the briefing tent where the map was. “They congregated in the darkness with flashlights, continuing their macabre vigil at the bomb line in brooding entreaty as though hoping to move the ribbon up by the collective weight of their sullen prayers” (Heller, 129). To their surprise, the rain cleared shortly after and the flight to Bologna became inevitable. During the bombing run, Clevinger and Yossarian stepped aside as confused spectators and Clevinger stated, ” you and I must be the only rational ones left” (Heller, 132). In an American bomber squadron infested with irrational minds and actions, the chances of a few individuals remaining rational is highly unlikely, especially Yossarian. At times Major Major Major also appears to be without the faculty of reason (Yes, that is his whole name with rank). His primary job was to sign documents all day long. One day the Major decided to humour himself and signed “Washington Irving’s name to the rest of the official documents” (Heller, 102). He believed that signing Washington Irving’s name to essential documents was entertaining and far less monotonous than signing Major Major Major. To make matters more enticing he never got caught for forging a name that he made up from a figment of his imagination. Major Major Major had sinned, “and it was good, for none of the documents to which he signed Washington Irving’s name never came back! Here at last was progress and Major, Major threw himself into a new career with uninhibited gusto” (Heller, 103). Certainly forgery wasn’t looked upon as much of a career, however it gave Major. Major, Major a strong sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, Colonel Cathcart demonstrated the great impact his sound judgements had on others. Colonel Cathcart inquired to the chaplain about holding religious services in the briefing room before each mission. This would raise the morale and spirits of the soldiers. Although the Colonel was not too keen on “any sermons about God or death or paradise” (Heller, 202) and believed that keeping “away from the subject of religion altogether” (Heller, 202) was in the best interest of the men. He believed a more positive and unique approach should be implemented. Praying for a tighter bomb pattern was much more beneficial and practical then worshipping the waters and valley’s of God. Surely the men would be greatful to pray for a cause they can understand and relate to. Besides General Peckem feels “it makes a much nicer aerial photograph when the bombs explode close together” (Heller, 203). Of course, any rational thinking individual could appreciate the aesthetic value of a tight bomb pattern. Once again Major, Major, Major is examined as he possesses one of the most irrational natures of all the characters described in Catch-22. Another interesting decision Major, Major, Major made, besides forging the name Washington Irving on confidential documents, was his choice of living in seclusion. He was fed up with his inability to relate to others and his “sickly resemblance” (Heller, 93) to Henry Fonda drove him over the cliff. He decided to take measure into his own hands and stormed into Sergeant Towser’s office. The following conversation between Major, Major, Major and Seargeant Towser hints to the brilliance of Major, Major, Major’s plans to become hermit like.
“From now on, I don’t want anyone to come in to see me while I’m here. Is that clear?
“Yes sir…does that include me?”
“I see… will that be all?”
“What shall I say to people who do come to see you while you’re here?”
“Tell them I’m in and ask them to wait”
“Yes sir. For how long?”
“Until I’ve left”
“And then what shall I do with them?”
“I don’t care”
“May I send in to see you after you’ve left?”
Major Major Major’s days of torment are over as nobody will ever laugh at his striking resemblance to Henry Fonda again. Also, given his circumstances, he will have no further problems relating to others. Joseph Heller puts an interesting twist to his crazy characters and almost persuades his readers into believing that they are in fact sane. Through this original use of rationale we are more prone to examine our own irrational natures.
Failure, corruption, and irrationality are the universal qualities satirized in the novel Catch-22. Yossarian repeatedly fails at improving his pathetic existence and his future appears to be that of a downward spiral. Milo Minderbinder becomes brainwashed with the thought of profit, which resembles people own greed and selfishness. Moreover, Major, Major, Major’s inability to relate to others therefore becoming a hermit like figure and General Peckem’s obsession with tight bomb patterns serves as a window, allowing us to peer into our own irrational existence.