The Effects of the Bombings in World War Two in Literature and Society. A Comparison between Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. (Yvonne Karsmakers)


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Chapter 3: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22


„YOSSARIAN LIVES!” was posted all over New York in 1962. Joseph Heller’s novel about the American bombardiers stationed in Pianosa, a small Italian island near Elba, had caught on with the general public. When Joseph Heller started writing it in 1953, he had no idea of how popular this novel would be, and how many soldiers of the Vietnam War would identify with this story about World War Two. Its structure and paradoxes make the novel a timeless protest about the futility of war in general. This chapter shall focus on several aspects of the book: its title, structure, the characters, genre, the paradoxes, the use of comedy, the references to religion and its publication and reception history. First, I will discuss the publication history and the reception of Catch-22 and then I will discuss the book in depth.



3.1 Publication History and Reception of Catch-22


Joseph Heller started writing Catch-22 in 1953. The first chapter appeared in a paperback quarterly entitled New World Writing in 1955, an anthology of works in progress. In 1961, the entire novel came out. The reviews were mixed. Some reviewers hated it (“emotional hodgepodge,” Sunday Times, quoted in the preface of Catch-22) and others loved it (“A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book,” Herald Tribune, also quoted in the preface of Catch-22). But it was not until 1962 that the novel became a bestseller. After an initital release of 300,000 copies, by the end of 1963 there had been eleven reprints. What made the book so popular? John Clark Pratt says in Yossarian’s Legacy; Catch-22 and the Vietnam War: “Those of us who knew Catch-22 could not help but see some obvious parallels to Vietnam, and almost all of them involved the fact of conflicting realities that lie at the core of Heller’s vision of the modern world. [...] So many- so often, and so incredibly true that the book could properly be seen as a paradigm for the Vietnam War itself” (Pratt, 1991: 89). Pratt mentions the medal Yossarian receives in Catch-22 (159) and says that, in Vietnam, too, medals were rewarded, “for fictional heroics because the actual sites of the events were not officially admitted to be in the war zone” (Pratt, 1991: 90).  The same went for the missions they had to fly in Vietnam: “some missions counted, others did not, depending upon the dates they were flown, the country to which they were directed, and the Rules of Engagement at the time. I often heard pilots say “Catch-22” when these rules were changed” (92). Pratt also mentions the many echoes Catch-22 has found in literature. Many authors applied Catch-22 directly to the Vietnam War, producing novels as To What End (Ward Just, 1968, who actually mentions a „catch-23”), The Bamboo Bed (William Eastlake, 1969), The Land of a Million Elephants (Asa Baber, 1970) and No Bugles, No Drums (Charles Durden, 1976) (Pratt, 1991: 95). In 1963, readers of the post-war generation had found a frame in which to place Catch-22: the war in Vietnam.



3.2 Title, Structure & Paradox


When writing about the title of Catch-22, it is impossible not to discuss the structure of the novel. Catch-22 is everywhere in the book: there is a “catch” on every page. By the way the structure is set up, Heller makes sure you remember there is always a catch. The “catch-22” is explained best on page 52:


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. (52[3])


This catch, which is an inescapable paradox, later referred to as a “Hellerism,” is applied to everything. There are personal catches, such as the one for Appleby: He has “flies in his eyes” but he does not know it. Why does he not know it? Because he cannot see them with the flies in his eyes (51). The catches are also applied to matters of the army. Robert Merrill lists these “catches”:


“Catch-22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer’s name.” This seems harmless enough; in fact, it seems more or less rational. […] “Catch-22 specifies 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,” Catch-22 says that “you always have to do what your commanding officer tells you to,” “Catch-22” insists that Group approve the actions of its subordinates. […] It’s easy to see through these early definitions, but their implicit horror is not felt until Heller finally offers the old woman’s unanswerable definition: “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing” (467). It is this simple, and this terrible. Catch-22 means whatever “they” want it to mean. (Merrill, 1986: 144)


Yossarian says towards the end of the novel: “Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse” (469). The last “catch” is when Yossarian is allowed to go home:


            [Cononel Cathcart:] “We’re sending you home.”

            There was, of course, a catch.

            “Catch-22?” inquired Yossarian.

            “Of course,” Colonel Korn answered pleasantly (482).


Yossarian can only go home if he will defend his superior officers once he gets back to America. He refuses to do so, and deserts instead. These “catches” are often paradoxical, and have a disorientating and comical effect.[4]

            The structure of Catch-22 is built upon the endless repetition of the “catch.” Other sequences, such as the death of Snowden and the appearance of the “soldier in white” are repeated as well. But, as Robert Merrill points out:


Many of Heller’s “repetitions” are slightly different in nature. Sometimes the repetition is exact (the deaths of the soldier in white and Snowden). Sometimes the repeated scene involves a virtually identical situation but different characters (the interrogations of Clevinger and the chaplain, the deaths of Mudd and Kraft). Sometimes the repetition involves an identical situation represented quite differently at different times (Rome as seen early and late in the novel). Heller thus creates a sense of constant repetition without literally repeating himself at all points. The sense of repetition is overwhelming, however. (Merrill, 1986: 142)


The repetitions can be referred to as flashbacks. When Yossarian enters the hospital at the beginning of the novel, “all the important missions have already been flown: Ferrara, Bologna and Avignon. This means that Yossarian has already flown over the bridge at Ferrara twice; that Milo Minderbinder has already established M & M Enterprises; that Snowden has already died over Avignon and subsequently been buried and that Yossarian has already stood naked in formation to receive a medal for his ‘heroism’ at Ferrara” (Merrill, 1986: 139). However, exactly at what point in the story these events happened is unclear. The narrative jumps from one scene to another, seemingly without more “logic” than the workings of Yossarian’s mind and the associations he makes. An example of such an “association-jump” can be found on page 29. Yossarian thinks of Orr, who was beaten on the head with a shoe by “his whore.” Thinking of Orr makes him think of young Huple, which makes him think of Hungry Joe. The scene with the shoe ends abruptly and Yossarian starts explaining about Hungry Joe:


Orr had buck teeth and bulging eyes to go with his big cheeks and was even smaller than young Huple, who lived on the wrong side of the trailroad tracks in the tent in the administration area in which Hungry Joe lay screaming in his sleep every night. The administration area in which Hungry Joe had pitched his tent by mistake…[…] The tents of the enlisted men in the squadron stood on the other side of the road alongside the open-air movie theater in which, for the daily amusement of the dying, ignorant armies clashed by night on a collapsible screen, and to which another U.S.O. troupe came that same afternoon. The U.S.O. troupes were… (29)


The chronology of these events is almost indeterminable: did Hungry Joe pitch his tent at the wrong place before or after Orr was hit over the head with a shoe? Robert Merrill says “it seems that Joseph Heller quite seriously wished to create the impression of chaos and formlessness” (Merrill, 1986: 139). Robert Merrill quotes critic David Richter, who explains the function of the “formlessness”: “Instead of going from incident to new incident, […] incidents are repeated, frequently with few factual changes, but with detail added to bring out the grotesque horror that underlies their absurd comedy” (Merrill, 1986: 141). Joseph Heller himself says about his book: “Catch-22 is not to my mind a formless novel. If anything, it was constructed almost meticulously, and with as meticulous concern to give the appearance of a formless novel” (Merrill, 139). The formlessness imitates the associations of a human mind, be it a rather desorientated one. There seems to be no reason for the associations, they appear to be fully random (although they all “match” together in the end). The randomness might have been used to imitate the state of the psyche at war: to express the confusion and the fear. The structure of Catch-22 is a sort of labyrinth, or a vicious circle, with catches that ensnare the mind and bind it without possible escape. The randomness and lack of reason may very well contribute to the theme of the book.[5]

A few things can be said about the chronology of the novel. Although no dates are mentioned, sometimes there is a suggestion of the length of a timelapse (“three combat missions later…” 32 ). One way of organising a form of chronology in the novel is to look at the places that are mentioned, such as Pianosa, the hospital in Pianosa, Bologna, Rome and Avignon. It is unknown how often Yossarian goes to the hospital. Whenever he is frightened and does not want to fly, he goes to the hospital:


Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. […] it was easy to stay there because he always ran a temperature of 101. (7)


‘Then I’ll go back into the hospital.’

‘You just came out of the hospital ten days ago,’ Milo reminded him reprovingly. ‘You can’t keep running into the hospital something happens that you don’t like’. (74)


‘The colonel wants forty missions,’ he [hungry Joe] repeated.

Yossarian shoved him out of the way and ran into the hospital. (189)


Two separate hospital-visits can be distinguised: the one with which the story opens (when Yossarian meets the chaplain) and the one in which the Texan arrives, which is before the one in which he meets the chaplain. Calling the visit with the Texan “visit one,” the following chronology can be identified:


  1. Yossarian is stationed at Pianosa

  2. Clevinger dies

  3. (7 months later) Yossarian goes into the hospital (“visit one”)

  4. The Texan arrives at the hospital

  5. (10 days later) Yossarian leaves the hospital

  6. (3 combat missions later) USO show in Pianosa

  7. Milo bombs his own squadron

  8. The Great Siege of Bologna

  9. Yossarian goes on rest-leave to Rome

  10. Mission to Avignon (Snowden is killed)

  11. Yossarian receives a medal

  12. Yossarian goes into the hospital (“visit two”)

  13. Yossarian meets the chaplain

  14. Yossarian deserts from the air force


However, many occurrences are more difficult to place. Yossarian visits Rome again at the end of the novel, before he deserts from the airforce. Where that visit can be placed in the chronology is unclear. It is after Orr’s “death” (it later turns out that Orr is not dead, but at the time of the visit Yossarian thinks he is), but when is that?

It is clear that Heller did not intend for anyone to make a timeline. It is not important when the individual scenes take place. That Yossarian jumps back and forth in time in his narration is also clear from the number of missions the bombardiers have to fly in order to be allowed to return home:











Raised from 35 to 40


Raised from 60 to unlimited








Sometimes the missions are over 50, then suddenly there is a flashback and they are “raised” to 35. The missions are also part of the catch. The number of missions is mainly raised because Colonel Cathcart wants to outdo the other officers. He thinks to himself:


            Certainly none of the generals seemed to object to what he was doing, although as far as he could detect        they weren’t particularily impressed either, which made him suspect that perhaps sixty combat missions      were not nearly enough and that he ought to increase the number at once to seventy, eighty, a hundred,            or even two hundred, three hundred, or six thousand! (246)


Whenever Yossarian is close to achieving the number of missions, it is raised:


[Major Major] ‘What do you want me to tell you?’

[Yossarian] ‘That I’ve flown enough missions and can go home.’

‘How many have you flown?’


‘You’ve only got four more to fly.’

‘He’ll raise them. Every time I get close he raises them.’

‘Perhaps he won’t this time.’ (118)


But the paradox is that even if he did make it to the number of missions, “Catch-22” will prohibit his leaving, because his superior officers say he has to stay and he has to obey them (66). Nately, the only one who has flown enough missions, is sent on one more mission and gets killed (431). No one can escape the catch. It is in the title, the structure and the fate of the characters.



3.3 Characters


Most of the chapters of Catch-22 are named for characters. This does not necessarily mean that the entire chapter is about that character because the narrator occasionally jumps to other scenes during the narration, but it does start with an introduction about that character and how Yossarian relates to them.

Yossarian is the main character. The reader follows his life and gets an impression of the other characters by how they interact with Yossarian. Yossarian is described as “a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not” (33). All he wants to do is get through the war alive. He can go to the hospital whenever he wants because he has an inexplicable liver-condition:


Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them. (7)


A doctor advised him to “have” this liver condition at his first hospital visit, because that way he could stay in longer: “If your appendix goes wrong, we can take it out and have you back on active duty in almost no time at all. But come to us with a liver complaint and you can fool us for weeks” (203). When Yossarian asks him why he is helping him, he says: “We’re all in this business of illusion together. I’m always willing to lend a helping hand to a fellow conspirator along the road to survival if he’s willing to do the same for me” (210). Yossarian takes this advice and fakes an illness. When he does have to fly missions, he is more concerned with staying alive than with the target: “he had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive” (33).

Yossarian is not the only one who thinks that way: Doc Daneeka, the doctor at camp Pianosa, lets Yossarian write him down on the flight-crew list to pretend he is flying with them when he is not. “‘You know how it is,’ Doc Daneeka had wheedled, with a sly, conspirational wink. ‘Why take chances when I don’t have to?’” (38). When the bomber that Doc Daneeka was supposed to be in crashes, he is officially “deceased.” The army sends his wife a letter informing her of his death, and nothing he can say or do can convince them that he is alive: not even the fact that he is standing in front of them.


‘You’re dead, sir,’ one of his two enlisted men explained.

            Doc Daneeka jerked his head up quickly with a resentful distrust.

            ‘You’re dead, sir,’ repeated the other. ‘That’s probably why you always feel so cold.’

[…] ‘What the hell are you both talking about?’ Doc Daneeka said shrilly with a surging, petrifying sensation of some onrushing unavoidable disaster.

‘It’s true, sir’ said one of the enlisted men. ‘The records show that you went up in McWatt’s plane to collect some flight time. You didn’t come down in a parachute, so you must have been killed in the crash.’ (392)


The men around Yossarian, apart from Doc Daneeka, do not seem very concerned with their own lives:


            ‘I’m going to be killed at Bologna,’ Yossarian pleaded. ‘We’re all going to be killed.’

‘Then you’ll just have to be killed,’ replied ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen. ‘Why can’t you be a fatalist about it the way I am?’ (141)


[…Yossarian] ‘You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.’

‘Exactly,’ Clevinger snapped smugly. ‘And which do you think is more important?’

‘To whom?’ Yossarian shot back. ‘Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.’

[…Clevinger] ‘I can’t think of a another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.’

‘The enemy,’ retorted Yossarian with weighed precision, ‘is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.’ (141-42)


This leads Yossarian’s superior officers to say that he does not know what war is all about:


[Major Sanderson] ‘You’re immature. You’ve been unable to adjust to the idea of war.’

[Yossarian] ‘Yes, sir.’

‘You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you are at war and might get your head blown off any second.’

‘I more than resent it sir. I am absolutely incensed.’

‘You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs or hypocrites.’ (348)


Of course, this passage is rather hilarious, since Major Sanderson is “accusing” Yossarian of having perfectly sane feelings about war, and subsequently claims he must be crazy to feel that way (349). But there are more serious passages as well, where Yossarian thinks about death: “He wondered mournfully, […] about all the people who had died under water. They were surely more than a million already. Where were they? What insects had eaten their flesh? He imagined the awful impotence of breathing in quarts and quarts of water” (387). In the end, no matter how often the other characters claim Yossarian is crazy, he seems to be the only sane character in the novel.

            Another character who needs mentioning is Milo Minderbinder. Milo Minderbinder is the mess officer at Pianosa, and he sets up a “syndicate” that buys food, sells it to itself under a different name and then buys it again. Several parties make profit in this enterprise (but mostly Milo himself), and “everybody has a share” (280). He does not care who profits from his deals as long as he profits most. He uses German planes to deliver the food he bought behind enemy lines and when the officers want to arrest the pilots and confiscate the planes, he is enraged:


‘Confiscate?’ He shrieked, as if he could not believe his own ears. ‘Since when is it the policy of the American government to confiscate the private property of its citizens? Shame on you! Shame on you for ever thinking such a horrible thought!’

‘But Milo,’ Major Danby interrupted timidly, ‘we’re at war with Germany, and those are German planes.’

‘They are no such thing!’ Milo retorted furiously. ‘Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everyone has a share.’ (291)


He even goes as far as to make deals with the Germans about American air raids,


[…] one day 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 antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. [..] Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridge, […] and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice. (292)


On some other occasion he has the Germans bomb his own outfit. He says: “If I can persuade the Germans to pay me a thousand dollars for every plane they shoot down, why shouldn’t I take it?” (294). He  does anything for a profit, which lands the crew in absurd situations (such as eating chocolate-covered cotton because Milo cannot find a buyer for cotton). Milo has only flown six combat-missions, and because he proves himself so “valuable” to the officers’ mess, the other pilots are forced to fly his missions for him (429). This is what gets Nately killed. He also sells the morphine and the lifejackets in Yossarian’s plane, causing Snowden to die in horrible pain. Milo goes too far in his pursuit of profit, and is damaging his own crew.

Orr, the Chaplain, Nurse Duckett, Dunbar, Nately, McWatt and the many other characters all get their lifestory told in the chapters named for them. Because they all complement the catch (they are part of the “system”), it would be too much to mention them all here.



3.4 Comedy & Irony


In an article Robert Merrill quotes Joseph Heller about the comic elements in his novel: “I tried consciously for a comic effect juxtaposed with the catastrophic. I wanted people to laugh and then look back at the horror of what they were laughing at” (Merrill, 1986: 145). The comedy in the novel is achieved in different ways: paradox and irony. The biggest paradox in the novel is of course “catch-22.” But there are also smaller references, for instance when a new character is introduced. It is stated how everyone feels about that character, and then Yossarian will feel the exact opposite (which paradoxically excludes him from “everyone”): “Appleby was a fairhaired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them, and everybody who knew him liked him. ‘I hate that son of a bitch,’ Yossarian growled” (21).

            Many of the occurrences or statements seem irrational. They are the deliberate opposite of reality, which makes them seem like a caricature:


Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. […] His prices were high, for failure did not come easily. He had to start at the top to 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 (31).


Although the situation in this example is slightly absurd, Heller is using it to comment on real life, where losses and financial gifts can be used for tax reduction purposes.

Sometimes passages are simply confusing, such as the questions that the bombardiers ask in their educational training:


            ‘Who is Spain?’

            ‘Why is Hitler?’

            ‘When is right?’

‘Where was that stooped and mealy-colored man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round broke down?’ (39)


Hungry Joe panics every time he is allowed to go home, and returns to a “normal state of terror” when it turns out the missions are raised and he cannot go home (61). Yossarian does not want to get out of the hospital, which leads to this conversation:


‘Now I do see,’ said Milo. ‘Fruit is bad for your liver?’

‘No, fruit is good for my liver. That is why I never eat any’ (70)


Major Major does not want to receive visitors, so he tells his receptionist to send everyone away until he has left and cannot receive them anymore:


[Sergeant Towser] ‘What shall I say to the people who come to see you while you’re here?’

[Major Major] ‘Tell them I’m in and ask them to wait.’

‘Yes, sir. For how long?’

‘Until I’ve left.’ (113)


Chief White Halfoat “decides” to die of pneumonia:


‘I think I will die of pneumonia.’


‘Why not?’ asked Chief White Halfoat, and lay back in the mud contentedly. (147)


Nately “had a bad start. He came from a good family” (13). When Colonel Cathcart commands two lieutenants to take Major Danby out and shoot him, they do not know what to do because “neither had ever taken Major Danby outside and shot him before” (255). Yossarian sees a sick little boy in the streets of Rome and he “was moved by such intense pity for his poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence” (472). Major Danby says he would never lie and immediately admits he would lie sometimes:


[Danby] ‘I’m a university professor with a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and I wouldn’t try to deceive you. I wouldn’t lie to anyone.’

[Yossarian] ‘What would you do if one of the men in the group asked you about this conversation?’

‘I would lie to him’ (509).


DocDaneeka was happy with the war: “Fortunately, just when things were blackest, the war broke out. ‘It was a godsend,’ Don Daneeka confessed solemnly” (46).


All of these instances are paradoxical and slightly absurd. But underneath this absurdity, there are a few very sharp comments on society. An important and recurring factor is the parody on bureaucracy. The army believes their paperwork over their men. When the paperwork says Doc Daneeka is dead, he is dead, even if he is alive and well and trying to tell them he is not dead (392). There is also supposed not to be a dead man in Yossarian’s tent, because he was killed before he could register himself. He was not registered, therefore he does not exist. When Yossarian signs papers with the Chaplain’s name, everyone assumes the Chaplain signed those papers. When he tries to refute this by saying it is not even his handwriting, he has to write something down in a different handwriting, and they say he is “lying” (437). The bureaucratic system keeps itself running by issuing orders and then making new rules (or “catches”) against those orders so that in the end, nothing happens. General Peckham says: “While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it” (368). Mainly, this is because the officers are afraid to go into battle themselves. With all his raising of missions and talk of heroism, it turns out that Colonel Cathcart has only flown four missions himself. The examples are so exaggerated that they have become unrealistic and absurd, but the reader cannot help but see certain similarities with modern society.

            There is a certain comedy in the names of some of the characters as well. There is Lieutenant Scheisskopf (literally “shithead”), Major __ de Coverly (of whom no one knows the first name) and Major Major Major Major (who was named Major as his first and Major as his last name, and was then promoted to the rank of Major Major because it would sound funny). One can hardly take these characters seriously. The comical elements in Catch-22 try to make the horrors of the war bearable as well as more intense to the reader, while at the same time creating a distance which allows the reader to draw parallels with modern society.



3.5 Religion


In Catch-22 the outlook on religion is rather bleak. Yossarian believes that God has forsaken the world:


‘And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,’ Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objection. ‘There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. […] Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? […] When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering.’ […]
Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. ’You’d better not talk that way about him, honey. […] He might punish you.’

‘Isn’t he punishing me enough?’ Yossarian snorted resentfully. (206-7)


His faith already started to waver at the training for bombardier-navigator. He took the training in the hope that the war would be over by the time he finished:


It seemed inconceivable that the war could last that long, for God was on his side, he had been told, and God, he had also been told, could do whatever he wanted to do. But the war was not nearly over, and his training was almost complete. (82)


However,  when Yossarian is really frightened, for example when their plane is hit in the mission over Avignon, he calls on God in the hope of salvation: “Oh, God! Yossarian had shrieked soundlessly as he felt them all falling. Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God! He had shrieked beseechingly through lips that could not open as the plane fell” (258). This experience frightens him so much that when Nately had reached the required number of missions, Yossarian prays Nately will not volunteer to fly more, because that would mean he would have to fly more as well: “For the first time in his life, Yossarian prayed” (422). In his more cynical moments, Yossarian refuses to believe in God, but when he is really frightened he still hopes there is something out there that will save him.

            The Chaplain, who is surrounded by men who do not believe in God, starts to get his own doubts: “Was there a God? How could he be sure? Being an Anabaptist in the American Army was difficult enough under the best of circumstances; without dogma, it was almost intolerable” (307). “[The] life-long trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, antropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God [..] had begun to waver” (328).

            Colonel Cathcart thinks that religion is just another way of becoming popular. He asks the Chaplain if he could say some prayers before each mission, because this might get his picture in the papers:


‘Look how much they’ve done for these people in England. Here’s a picture of a colonel in the Saturday Evening Post whose chaplain conducts prayers before each mission. If the prayers work for him, they should work for us. Maybe if we say prayers, they’ll put my picture in the Saturday Evening Post.’ (219)


Colonel Cathcart does not think it necessary that these prayers are about God:


[Cathcart] ‘Haven’t you anything humorous that stay away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.’

The Chaplain was apologetic. ‘I’m sorry sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather somber and make at least some passing reference about God.’

‘Then let’s get some new ones. […] Why can’t we all pray for something good, like a tighter bomb pattern, for example?’ (221)


Apart from the Chaplain, it seems that none of the main characters believe in God. Religion is even ridiculed by the way the officers want to use it for their own gain. None of the men are miraculously saved – by God, that is. Orr, who is said to have died in a planecrash, turns out to have escaped to Sweden. He is the only one of Yossarian’s crew who has not died but got away. The Chaplain sees this as a confirmation of his faith: “’It’s a miracle, I tell you! A miracle! I believe in God again. I really do.’” (514) Yossarian, however, sees it as a sign of human intelligence, because Orr has crashed his plane on purpose to make in seem he had died, while in reality he escaped from the plane and peddled to Sweden with a lifeboat. Orr’s plan gives Yossarian hope for his own escape.



3.6 Metaphors and Clichés


Sebald poses in Luftkrieg und Literatur that survivors of the bombings were often too traumatised to express themselves about what happened, and that this finds its echo in literature: the lack of information from eyewitnesses creating a vacuum in literary narration. When it appears in novels, it is often in the form of clichéd expressions such as “inferno” and “apocalypse.” In chapter two I have explained how Gert Ledig hardly uses these clichés, or in some cases, uses them to stress his point (“It wasn’t the Day of Judgement,” Payback, 200, my italics). But how is this in literature about the “other side”: the bomber crews? In the television-documentary “The Great War: Aircombat over Germany” of the German television network ZDF (2003), aired in Holland in September 2003, RAF bomber commanders are interviewed about their experiences:


[Harold Nash] Wir konnten das Jammern und das Geschrei und das Heulen gar nicht hören. Das war unser einziger Kontakt. Der Tod, für uns, war geruchlos, lautlos, wir konnten es nicht miterleben. Wenn wir dabei gewesen wären, wenn wir das hätten mitansehen müssen, hätten wir das nicht machen können. Wie wir Kinder und Frauen verbrannt haben, das hätten wir nicht machen können.


We could not hear the moaning and the cries and the crying. That [the lights] were the only contact we had. Death, to us, was odorless, soundless, we could not experience it. Had we been there, had we been forced to see it, we could not have done it. The way we burnt children and women, we could not have done that.


[Richard Mayce] A truly horrific occasion. It was the only time that I was conscious, looking down from the aircraft, from the bombing position through the nose of the aircraft, and seeing […] indescribable […] a sort of Dante’s Inferno, a great area of white heat, a sort of massive […] horror. Even the water was on fire. It was something I had never seen before […] and never wished too.


Both pilots try to explain how the experience was something they had no words for. Harold Nash stresses how the distance made it possible to drop the bombs, and Richard Mayce compares it with Dante’s Inferno. They use the same sort of clichés as the survivors of the bombings.

            Joseph Heller uses a clichéd description only once in Catch-22: when Milo bombs his own base. It was “the most apocalyptic sight he [Colonal Cathcart] had ever beheld” (296). Curiously enough, this is when the US airmen themselves are being bombed.

            The scene of Yossarian’s second visit to Rome, however, is rather “apocalyptic” altogether. Yossarian walks through the streets and sees a sick little child, a woman carrying a baby, a dog and a boy being beaten. He finds “himself walking on human teeth lying on the drenched, glistening pavement near splotches of blood kept sticky by the pelting raindrops poking each other like sharp fingernails” (476). Everywhere he looks there is death, decay and torture. “The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world” (475). This dark scene describes a Rome at war rather than the “holiday” Rome at the beginning of the novel, where the men go on rest-leave to drink and be merry.

            As mentioned in chapter two, the clichés describe what could not be described by comparing it with unrealistic, fictional circumstances (Dante’s Inferno). Joseph Heller creates the same “unrealistic” surroundings, but in a different way.  His use of the paradoxes, such as the “catch”, and the confusing structure give the reader the distance needed to look at the events from the outside and think about them.



3.7 Themes & Genre


When reading Catch-22, one can hardly take its characters seriously. They are too comical, too absurd. They are caricatures, which makes Catch-22 a satire. According to Robert Merrill, Heller believes “evil is very much a human creation” (149). Catch-22 is a protest against war, but also against bureaucracy, and “the injustices of the modern social order” (Merrill, 1986: 148). The character of Milo Minderbinder shows the capitalist view of war and the “military industrial complex”[6]: “Everyone has a share.” Business profits from the war-industry and may very well be working to incite or prolong the war because it makes good profit. One theme of Catch-22 is that the whole idea of war is absurd when profit becomes more important than patriotism and peace.

According to Merrill, Heller used his repetition in the structure to “make his crucial point about widespread complicity in the regimented business society” (150). He wanted to show that “the enemy is not just the corporations and their authorities (in this case the military and its commanding officers)” (151). The enemy is also the capitalist corporations like Milo’s M & M enterprises, whose capitalist ways harm his own team. The most important message, however, is the futility of war:


Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on either side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. […] And when Yossarian tried to remind people [that there was nothing funny going on], they drew away from him and thought he was crazy. (18)


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. (77)


            ‘They’re trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him calmy.

            ‘No one’s trying to kill you,’ Clevinger cried.

            ‘Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.

            ‘They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’

            ‘And what difference does that make?’ (19)


Dr Stubbs fails to see the point of being a doctor in the war:


‘I used to get a big kick out of saving people’s lives. Now I wonder what the hell is the point, since they all have to die anyway.’

‘Oh, there’s a point all right,’ Dunbar assured him.

‘Is there? What’s the point?’

‘The point is to keep them from dying for as long as you can.’

‘Yeah, but what’s the point, since they all have to die anyway?’

‘The trick is not to think about that.’

‘Never mind the trick. What the hell’s the point?’

Dunbar pondered in silence for a few moments. ‘Who the hell knows?’ (127)


Heller also makes a short comment on America’s attitude at the time through the old man in the brothel:


‘Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries were destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your country will last? […] A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with his standards of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as…the frog?’ (279)


The same old man says he simply adapts to all new regimes, and that is safer than patriotism:


‘I was a facist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us from the Germans I am fanatically pro-American. […] Imagine a man his age risking what little life he has left for something so absurd as a country.’

Nately was instantly up in arms again. ‘There’s nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!’ he declared.

‘Isn’t there?’ Asked the old man. ‘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. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Certainly so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.’ (281-83)


The message is clear: war is futile, and hardly anyone knows what they are fighting for. This

message was clearly received during the Vietnam war (see 3.1).


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[3] Quotes in this chapter all refer to Heller’s Catch-22, (London: Vintage, 1994) unless otherwise indicated.

[4] See 3.4 „Comedy“

[5] See 2.7 „Themes & Genre“

[6] A phrase first used by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” (in Public Papers of the Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960, pp. 1035- 1040)