THE POLITICS OF WAR: Absurdity and Economy

THE POLITICS OF WAR: Absurdity and Economy continued.

CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller

      “It was love at first sight”. This is one of those famous opening lines of a novel, if only because it is written about Yossarian, An Army Airforce B-25  bombadier, recovering from a battle wound while based at an island west of Italy in the Medetaranian. It is in reference to his surgeon, a man Yossarian has high respect for.

   There are many avant gaard comments and scenes within the book like this one, designed to both amuse and confuse. In fact, the novel is rife with paradox. For this is the way the U.S. Military is run, you see. The phrase, Catch 22 , is a military rule, the self-contradictory circular reasoning that, for example, prevents one from avoiding combat missions. And it is a general critique of beaurocratic operation and reasoning.

   Here then is basically the catch in Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. The character, 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 were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and thus didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.

     Catch-22 says, as one of the other characters would state, “that they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing”. And it becomes illicitly used to maintain a profiteering enterprise by a grass roots elite, who can keep the Base in check with lots of recruits utilizing this Rule while fighting the Germans, especially when missions were added on to a Airman’s schedule, forcing him to stay at the Base longer than his rotation was meant to . The whole point of this was to profit from his pay by giving him shares in the syndicate run by Milo Minderbinder, the squadron’s mess officer. The war thus kind of loses sight to the grander sceme of those who would profit from it.

     Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist, there is no way for it to be repealed, undone, overthrown or denounced.

   Meanwhile, the syndicate, which is run like a communist/capitalist enterprise, feeds off its shareholders with product they are able to buy on the open market at a higher price but sell at a lower price to the airmen and still make a profit, because they are collecting money from the airmen’s pay for each share of stock they receive. Its kind of like a reverse Ponzi Scheme.

     Milo is one of the most complex figures in the novel, and the syndicate that he heads is one of its most elusive symbols. On the one hand, the syndicate gives Heller an opportunity to parody the economic activity of large-market capitalism. The extraordinary rationalization by which Milo is able to buy eggs for seven cents apiece and sell them for five cents apiece while still turning a profit is one of the most tortuously sublime moments in the novel. On the other hand, it can only be done through this Socialistic Collective.

     Yossarian comes to fear his commanding officers more than he fears the Germans attempting to shoot him down and he feels that "they" are "out to get him." Key among the reasons Yossarian fears his commanders more than the enemy is that as he flies more missions, Colonel Cathcart increases the number of required combat missions before a soldier may return home. He reaches the magic number only to have it retroactively raised. His paranoia is considered irrational by the Base psychiatrist. As he states, “The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”

   The lines become blurred as to who the enemy really is when Milo employs German airmen to bomb the encampment at  Pianosa because it will be profitable for the syndicate to do so. This predicament indicates a tension between traditional motives for violence and the modern economic machine, which seems to generate violence simply as another means to profit, quite independent of geographical or ideological constraints. Heller emphasizes the danger of profit seeking by portraying Milo without “evil intent." Milo’s actions are portrayed as the result of greed, not malice.

     This is one of the most hilarious novels to read because it is full of paradoxical pranks. Yossarian soon discovers that he is one of two men who are truly sane at his base. The other is a man named Orr he will not fly with, even though invited to on several occations, because the pilot has a tendency to crash land in the Mediterranean. They share a tent and both are considered to be crazy.

     Orr's motivation throughout, however, is to escape the squadron and the war. He plans to crash land in the sea and make his way to a neutral country where he can wait out the war (which he eventually does). He practices this goal by getting shot down every mission he flies, and so becomes an expert in crash landings, without losing a single crewman. But he is considered crazier than Yossarian because of it. Thus, Orr is the only character in the book who understood how to defeat the law of Catch 22.

     Yossarian, upon hearing that news, grabs an inflatable raft and paddles out into the Medeterranean to finally make his escape. One is left with a sense that there is more to the absurdity of war than just the violence and the killing. It includes a rationale of isolation, greed, sex, opportunism, victimization, abject fear and a growing inability to differentiate between good and evil, madness and sanity.

-Resident Philosopher Doug Taylor