“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 would have 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”
Having spent 4 years in the Navy, I truly identified with this book. The phrase Catch-22 needs no explanation as it has permeated our language. It’s origin can be found here, and more specifically, in the phrase above.
Catch-22, released in 1961, follows Captain John Yossarian of the 256th Army Air Force during WWII (1943 to be specific) on the island of Pianosa just west of Italy. The book is historical fiction with Pianosa being nowhere near large enough to support a major military base, or a small town. This is a very dense book and not for everyone. Catch-22 constantly shows the humor of bureaucracy and the fallacies in circular reasoning, as well as the pit falls of a group with selfish motivations.
Yossarian seems to be the only one who remembers that a war is being fought, and quite literally millions of people are trying to kill him. Every time he expresses this fear, everyone thinks he’s insane. The superior officers constantly raise the number of bombing missions required to go home, meaning no one ever leaves. These same superiors are only concerned with furthering their own career, volunteering the squadron for every crazy or dangerous mission that comes up.
While we mostly follow Yossarian, we still see a wide cast of characters with their own eccentricities. The mess officer, Milo Minderbender, runs an international black-market syndicate using military resources to fly rations all over Europe. Relentlessly chasing profit, he even has his own base bombed because of a contract with Germany. Major Major Major was named so by his father to spite his mother. Due to a computer error, on his first day of enlistment, he was promoted to Major, instantly alienating him from all ranks. He only takes meetings when he’s not in his office. Yossarian’s roommate Orr, a gifted mechanic who crashes his plane or his shot down every mission, but manages to survive.
Most of the book has a light and comical tone, until the last quarter, when we see the horrors of war. Yossarian finally goes AWOL in Rome and sees the murder, raping, and pillaging first hand. Eventually he’s arrested for not having a pass. His superiors offer him a choice, stay and be court martialed or go home with an honorable discharge. If he takes the latter choice he must publicly support their policy of flying 80 missions. He realizes that this would endanger everyone else, and opts to flee.
Orr was considered simple, and by the end had been M.I.A. He always asked Yossarian to join him on missions, but Yossarian declined knowing they would crash. Orr was the smart one though, he found a way out. Yossarian realized he was crashing intentionally, practicing rowing back every time. Orr wasn’t missing, he escaped to neutral Sweden. Determined to take control of his life again, Yossarian decided to follow.
If you’ve ever served in the military or spent time working for a nonsensical bureaucratic overlord, this book is for you. I couldn’t put it down.
What did you think of the book? Experienced your own Catch-22? Comment or tweet!