Catch-22

Long before I found voluntaryism I read Catch-22 and determined it to be my favorite book ever. Non-fiction aside, I don’t think this has changed in the couple of decades since I first read the book. I’d like to show in this post why I still love it and why I think you would love it too!

First off, it’s probably one of the best anti-war novels ever. One of the best works of fiction, in many people’s eyes. An entire generation of youth supposedly went to college with a personal copy of the book in their backpacks. So if you’re prone to fall for the bandwagon fallacy or the argumentum ad populum (that popular ideas are necessarily right), read no further – this book is good because many people say so. Now go out and buy it! Oh, and what other book features both Milo and Snowden? That’s right – Catch-22.

But seriously, here’s what I like about it:

It really is a great anti-war, anti-government novel. We have to laugh at politicians and those who unleash destructive forces (mostly embodied by the military leaders in this book). The more we laugh at them, the more insignificant they become. Our ‘leaders’ hate it because they need to be revered and feared for this whole obedience shtick to work. Once the cracks start showing and people realize how ridiculous and nonsensical the State is (and all its institutions), that’s when progress can be made. This book shines the light on these absurdities in the most hilarious way. It gets rather dark towards the end, as the reality of war and other horrors set and I won’t spoil the end, but suffice it to say this book has it all.

Synopsis

Written by Joseph Heller, Catch-22 is a story of Yossarian, a World War II bombardier, who tries his hardest to get out alive, but is pitted against an illogical, convoluted bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to make sure you never get out. Yossarian’s commanding officer would dismiss a soldier who is mentally unwell, but in asking to be dismissed you’re proving your sanity. Hence only the people who are willing to fly have the potential of being dismissed. This is the essence of the ‘catch-22’ situation, as described in what is arguably the most quoted passage of the book:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

The following quote is one of my favorites. It brings to light the complete arbitrariness of the nation state, where its boundaries lie, and the absurd notion of patriotism, where dying for this arbitrary concept is in some way superior to staying alive and being there for your loved ones.

"What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
"Anything worth living for,” said Nately, "is worth dying for.”
"And everything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, "is certainly worth living for.”

Unfortunately for some who live in countries that still enlist kids into mandatory military service, war and lesser conflicts that can result in death can be unavoidable. Even in countries where joining the military is voluntary, this does not make war and its consequences any more sensical. Yossarian shows this by his rational desire to stay alive.

History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.

And:

"From now on I’m thinking only of me.”
Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: "But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”
"Then,” said Yossarian, "I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

The impact government has on private industry, even if it’s an unintended consequence, often leads to people taking absurd, counterintuitive and counterproductive action. Colonel Cargill’s description and his background were meant to sound outrageous, but the outrageous thing is that it’s not far from the truth:

Colonel Cargill, General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was a forceful, ruddy man. Before the war he had been an alert, hard-hitting, aggressive marketing executive. He was a very bad marketing executive. Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilized world, from Battery Park to Fulton Street, he was known as a dependable man for a fast tax write-off. His prices were high, for failure often did not come easily. He had to start at the top and work his way down, and with sympathetic friends in Washington, losing money was no simple matter. It took months of hard work and careful misplanning. A person misplaced, disorganized, miscalculated, overlooked everything and opened every loophole, and just when he thought he had it made, the government gave him a lake or a forest or an oilfield and spoiled everything. Even with such handicaps, Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.

On the topic of domestic spying and active targeting of dissidents, Lieutenant Scheisskopf personifies an oppressive regime that has to keep track of its subjects so that when a case is to be made against them there is sufficient information to draw from.

Clevinger was a troublemaker and a wise guy. Lieutenant Scheisskopf knew that Clevinger might cause even more trouble if he wasn’t watched. Yesterday it was the cadet officers; tomorrow it might be the world. Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous, and even the new cadet officers whom Clevinger had helped into office were eager to give damning testimony against him. The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.

And in the spirit of domestic spying, the FISA courts come to mind with the old woman’s recollection of the authorities issuing warrants nobody can see and individuals being indicted for crimes they are not made aware of and from which they cannot defend themselves:

"The girls were crying. ‘Did we do anything wrong?’ they said. The men said no and pushed them away out the door with the ends of their clubs. ‘Then why are you chasing us out?’ the girls said. ‘Catch-22,’ the men said. ‘What right do you have?’ the girls said. ‘Catch-22,’ the men said. All they kept saying was ‘Catch-22, Catch-22.’ What does it mean, Catch-22? What is Catch-22?”
"Didn’t they show it to you?” Yossarian demanded, stamping about in anger and distress. "Didn’t you even make them read it?”
"They don’t have to show us Catch-22,” the old woman answered. "The law says they don’t have to.”
"What law says they don’t have to?”
"Catch-22.”

The mindless bureaucracy and wasteful nature of government is not immune to Heller’s satire, as is described by General Peckem:

Just pass on the work I assign you to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation and responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive. Nothing we do in this large department of ours is really very important, and there’s never any rush. On the other hand, it is important that we let people know we do a great deal of it. Let me know if you find yourself shorthanded. I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains, and sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand. While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it. Don’t you agree?

Or how about this little gem about what the State thinks of those pesky individualists…?

You have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You’re dangerous and depraved, and you ought to be taken outside and shot!

Or this one on those whom we call our ‘leaders’? You can imagine the preceding paragraphs did not depict a rosy situation.

…That’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.

Or this one…? (Oh my goodness… this blog post is practically writing itself!)

Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.

And finally, there’s the odd case of Milo Minderbinder, who’s just out for a quick a buck. Satirical about the greedy capitalist pig without a shred of morality, who’s willing to kill for his own profit, Heller has taken this character to extremes. Not to sound naïve but it seems to me that in reality there are far more politicians than businessmen who use armies to perpetrate mass murder for their own profit, but hey, we’ll throw Heller a bone here. After all, he did pen the following response to Yossarian’s question of why Milo doesn’t sell his cotton to the government:

Milo vetoed the idea brusquely. "It’s a matter of principle,” he explained firmly. "The government has no business in business, and I would be the last person in the world to ever try to involve the government in a business of mine.”

Concluding thoughts

So to sum up what is already an incredibly lengthy post, I will just say this: Keep on laughing. Laugh at those who think they have authority over you, laugh at the means by which they seek to control you, because with each additional giggle another thread unravels. And as always, thank you for reading!


 

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