Have you ever wondered where the phrase “It’s a Catch-22” came from? Most likely you are aware it was termed by American author Joesph Heller in his book Catch-22 (1961), and that it refers to a no-win situation. And the reasoning for the number 22? There is none – other than it sounded the nicest in the opinions of Joseph and his publishers. Joseph’s novel is considered one of America’s finest war novels and is known to be called brilliant, shocking, and offensive. Just a warning for those who haven’t read it – spoiler alert!
The novel takes place on the small Italian island of Pianosa during WWII. Yossarian, the main character and a US Air Force bombardier, and his squadron are ordered around by inept generals who constantly promise to send them home but never seem to do. The number of missions required to be completed to be sent home constantly gets bumped up. Yossarin is an individual with a strong will to live and is angered by the fact that he must put his life in constant peril through no choice of his own. He fakes illnesses and continually looks for ways to get out of his missions.
The satirical novel is full of odd characters and misfits. The squadron commander named Major Major Major Major receives his title of Major through a computer glitch. Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer, is ruthless and signs an agreement for the Germans to bomb off his squadron in exchange for money. As Yossarian recounts the tale, sub-plots unfold around him as well.
His friend Naterly falls in love with a whore from Rome. At first she is not receptive to his advances, but after sometime decides she likes him as well. Naterly is soon killed off in his next mission, and Yossarin is the one to deliver the news to her. She blames him for Naterly’s death and attacks him every time she sees him from then on.
Yossarin refuses to fly any more missions and leaves to wander the streets of Rome. Eventually, he is arrested for not having a pass, and sent to his commanding officers. He is given a choice for honorable discharge but he must agree to put his squadron mates in danger. In the end, Yossarin decides deserting is his only choice, and he flees to Sweden. Only then does he truly gain back his individual freedom and turns away from the machinery of the military.
So, what is the lesson to be learned?
Heller claimed that the novel was not so much about WWII specifically but about bureaucracy and authority’s absurd ways in the modern world. This can be greatly seen in the circular logic of the military in the novel. The most popular example:
Yossarin learns that pilots evaluated as “unfit” to fly are grounded from combat duty. “Unfit” is any pilot who is willing to fly since the missions are so dangerous, and therefore, one must be crazy to want to fly. At the same time, the squadron doctor must do the evaluation, and one must ask him to do it. But, by asking the doctor to evaluate you, you are then declared “sane” because this is sufficient proof of your sanity. So, if you want to get out of combat duty, you are not crazy. If you are not crazy, then you must fly. This is a Catch-22 since no pilot, sane or not, is able to not fly.
Another not so nice way of putting it, Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Have you ever experienced a Catch-22 situation? What happened?