Mediocre Men in Charge

2 February 2019

In Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, the protagonist, Yossarian, is alienated from the other men in his combat group by his desperate desire for self-preservation and his lack of regard for the common ideals behind war. Instead of focusing on duty and patriotism, he merely focuses on surviving through the war. Because of this, he views anyone who takes any action that may get him killed—which often includes men on his own side—as an enemy. Yossarian’s alienation and differing views expose the backwards logic and inherent wastefulness of war and the bureaucracy that runs it.
Behind all of his alienation is Yossarian’s basic desire to survive through the war, which ends up putting him at odds with many other men in his unit, who view death as patriotic, honorable and a necessity. Yossarian disagrees with them, and tries to ask Clevinger why he should have to die, “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” (68). Even though Clevinger “knew everything” (68), he could not answer the question. Yossarian knows that any sacrifice on his behalf will not actually contribute significantly to the overall war effort, and will just be a waste. Death, to the other men, becomes synonymous with victory, as victory is, in many cases, the only way to justify the death. The death is not a waste as long as it goes towards a successful outcome. As Clevinger tries to explain this to Yossarian, who rebuttals by saying, “‘Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn’t make a darned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead’”(123). While Clevinger focuses on the bigger picture, trying to justify his superiors’ actions, he has missed the fact that the wasted lives aren’t even allowed to enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice. Benefits Yossarian would like to enjoy, without the sacrifice.
And anyone who tries to force sacrifice on Yossarian is, in his book, an enemy, as he tells Clevinger, “‘The enemy, is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart” (124). In most cases Yossarian’s enemies are the ones who are supposed to be on his side; the Germans, who are supposed to be his real enemies, are only seen through anti-aircraft fire and bomb targets. Colonel Cathcart continually raises the number of missions required, and as a result puts each man in more individual danger. As a result, Colonel Cathcart is an enemy, even though he is a superior officer.
As a superior officer, he should be concerned with the fate of his, but he is only ever interested in personal advancement, “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others” (187), which Yossarian resents, because Cathcart’s attempts at progress frequently come at his expense. Yossarian resists, and Cathcart is bewildered, thinking it is a personal attack. “Yoassarin, whoever he turned out to be, was destined to serve as [Colonel Cathcart]’s nemesis” (210). He is blind to the sacrifices he continually asks of Yossarian and the other men. His ambition destroys or distorts any moral character he may have had, and blinds him. The blind ambition within military ranks is counter-intuitive and inhumane, leading to wastefulness and inefficiency. Men become tools to make their superiors look good.
And the superiors will do anything to retain a good record. Official records are constantly falsified, useless trivialities such as tight bomb patterns are blown needlessly out of proportion, and circular logic used to keep the men in line. Catch-22 itself is the embodiment of all the circular, broken logic of the army. Men must fly their missions no matter what, as in the case of Orr, “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” (46), and thus there is no way for men to get out of the missions they would have to be crazy to go on. The logic is irrefutable because it is innately illogical. It is so irrefutable—and illogical—though, that it becomes an excuse to do anything, as in the case of the military policemen who kick the prostitutes out of their brothel in Rome. The policemen’s only explanation was “Catch-22,” which they did not even show to the prostitutes. Yossarian is mystified by the complete lack of judgment, and he does not understand the logic that controls him, which distances him further from the others in the army, who go along with it unquestioningly.
Yossarian never seeks to become one of these sheep, and is constantly trying to break out of the system of unclear bureaucracy. A bureaucracy so incompetent that it will not recognize some men as dead, as in the case of Mudd, Yossarian’s short-lived roommate and it will pronounced men dead even when they are clearly still living, as in the case of Doc Daneeka. Yossarian is constantly frustrated by this, “he had gone to complain to Sergeant Towser, who refused to admit the dead man, [Mudd], even existed”(22) because there weren’t any records of him officially. This is clear ineptitude on the part of the bureaucracy, yet Yossarian is the only one to recognize it.
For all its incompetence, the administration still controls everyone and everything, and its decisions have great weight. When Doc Daneeka is pronounced dead, even though he is clearly still alive, he loses all his possessions and is forced to live off the forest and a few some generous benefactors, who still don’t really recognize him as “living.” When his two enlisted men turn him away from his tent, Doc Daneeka realizes, “to all intents and purposes, he really was dead” (344). The administration in control of everything is not only broken, but the men willingly go along with it. Yossarian fights the administration out of self-preservation, because it is the very thing forcing him to take on more combat missions.
And, in the end, he finally does take the leap to break away. He deserts for Sweden, as he believes Orr has done. He realizes that he cannot fight the system while within the system; indeed, he cannot fight the system at all and hope to win. Its lack of logic gives it an undeniable sense of logic, and thus an unbreakable hold on its subjects. As long as the nonsensical holds the illusion of reason, it is untouchable. Only when one steps out of common reasoning—as Yossarian does by seeking only self-preservation instead of holding onto ideals such as patriotism—can he break the hold of the system.

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