Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Catch 22: war satire still bites in the age of Fallujah and Helmand

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller, reviewed by Matt Owen

January 18, 2012
5 min read

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, called Catch 22 ‘the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense’. Readers of a certain sensibility – of which the record would suggest there are many; the book has sold more than 10 million copies – clearly understand what she meant. Joseph Heller’s novel marked its 50th anniversary in November, and despite the fact that it was first published in a very different era – at the height of the cold war and the beginning of large‑scale US involvement in Vietnam – its caustic satire of war, militarism and bureaucracy has barely aged.

A fluid, non-chronological narrative that flits between a preponderance of characters, Catch 22 defies straightforward synopsis. The novel mainly follows Yossarian, an American B-25 bombardier (Heller himself occupied this role during the second world war), as well as a number of other airmen of the fictional 256th squadron. Most of the events take place on an air base on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean, moving inland during the latter (and much darker) stages of the novel.

The novel’s central conflict – at once the source of both the great humour and profound pathos of the text – stems from the imagined piece of military code that gives the novel its title and has since been absorbed into the English language as a popular idiom. Within the text, Heller explains it thus:

‘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.’

Now part of common English as simply an idiom for a ‘no-win situation’, the catch itself reflects the central theme of the novel: the ludicrous reality of thousands of men setting out to try to murder one another every day because those are their orders.

Catch 22 is full-blooded in its satire; much of the action is almost slapstick, and the dialogue sometimes borders on all-out absurdity, especially in the earlier stages of the novel. However, like all good satire, the heart of the text has more than a ring of truth to it, which remains every bit as applicable 50 years later as it did in 1961.

After all, is First Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder’s bombing of his own squadron to make an extra buck all that far removed from the corporate war profiteers of today, who rely on their own nations being in a perpetual state of conflict in order to sell their hardware? Is Captain Black’s exaggerated, blinkered patriotism all that far removed from the chest-thumping rhetoric employed by consecutive US presidents in a bid to win support for their military designs? Is Hungry Joe dying at the hands of his nightmares all that far removed from modern reality, when one considers that a comparable number of soldiers have committed suicide after serving in recent wars as have died while fighting them? The madness of the Italian Front is the madness of the Vietnamese jungle is the madness of Fallujah and Helmand.

Ultimately, Catch 22 is the perfect anti-war novel because it eschews anything that could be considered pious pacifism in favour of a bold examination of what war-making actually amounts to. Heller stated that the central question of the novel was ‘What does a sane man do in an insane society?’ If there is an answer, then it is surely ‘stay alive’. Throughout the text, the overbearing background character, lurking beneath every joke, casting its shadow over every scene, is death. And it is death’s most perfect application – war – that, in a novel lacking a conventional hero, emerges as the arch-villain.

Mark Twain once said that ‘the secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow’. In no piece of literature is this better exemplified than Catch 22. Classicism drew a sharp distinction between tragedy and comedy; Heller’s novel erases this distinction absolutely. Frequently cited as one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century, Catch 22 hardly needs any more praise, or exposure, but when one has just finished re-reading it, it’s hard not to give it anyway.

Sadly, we still live in a web of insane societies. But Heller’s novel may at least console you with the notion that – somewhere, behind the dehumanising monoliths of militarism and unending war – the sane still exist.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


11