Illustrates Antiwar Sentiment

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 expressed a strong antiwar stance and an absurdist view of life that struck a chord with many readers, especially as U.S. involvement in Vietnam began to deepen. The novel goes far beyond being a major war novel to being the definitive statement of the modern antiwar position.

Summary of Event

Catch-22 (1961) is set on the imaginary island of Pianosa during World War II and focuses on Captain John Yossarian and his attempts to circumvent the illogic of his bomber squadron’s commanders and thus earn the privilege of going home. As the death toll rises, the quota of bombing missions required for home-leave is increased repeatedly. By pleading insanity, Yossarian hopes to find a way out. The military doctor quotes the infamous Catch-22, which can be summarized as follows: Flying missions is crazy. To get out of flying them, one must plead insanity; however, since wanting to get out of flying them is proof of sanity, pleading insanity to get out of flying invalidates the claim of being insane. Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch twenty two]
[kw]Catch-22 Illustrates Antiwar Sentiment (1961)[Catch Twenty two Illustrates Antiwar Sentiment]
[kw]Antiwar Sentiment, Catch-22 Illustrates (1961)[Antiwar Sentiment, Catch Twenty two Illustrates]
Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch twenty two]
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[g]United States;1961: Catch-22 Illustrates Antiwar Sentiment[06730]
[c]Literature;1961: Catch-22 Illustrates Antiwar Sentiment[06730]
Heller, Joseph

In his opposition, Yossarian comes up against two immovable forces: the Establishment and the System. He finds it impossible to live within the Establishment, or even to reform it, because he believes that it treats human beings as mechanisms, values conformity above creativity, regards people’s files as more important than the people themselves, and encourages official lying as a matter of policy. As for the System, it tends to use war not so much to fight a national enemy as to regulate its own people. It fosters power struggles that victimize the “fighting man” in wartime and the creative person in peacetime. On every level, the System needs scapegoats and always finds them. The Establishment formulates humanitarian policies not for its own practice but for use in measuring the enemy, for propaganda purposes. Corruption runs rampant in all professions and institutions because private greed is sanctified.

Joseph Heller.

(Mariana Cook)

Yossarian is more interested in humanity than in organizations, and when the Organization turns against human values, he has the courage to assert that there is a higher law than the state and that there are times in history when the state is the villain, when what is needed is a new kind of hero. Yossarian is this new kind of hero, and the notorious Catch-22 is his bête noire. In every law, it is the loophole that empowers authorities to revoke rights whenever it suits them. Because of Catch-22, justice is mocked, the innocent are victimized, and Yossarian’s squadron is forced to fly more than double the number of missions prescribed by U.S. Air Force code.

Hovering always in the background of the novel is the haunting, mysterious presence of the anonymous “soldier in white,” bandaged from head to foot and kept alive by an endless rotation of body fluids. What begins as a grotesque joke—whatever is excreted at one end is what is ingested at the other—becomes a grim symbol of the mechanical regulation of human life: facelessness, self-containment, the withdrawal and isolation of the patient who is thoroughly dehumanized yet kept alive because it has become possible to do so. There is even doubt about whether someone actually exists beneath the bandages of the soldier in white. Even if someone does exist, can he hear what is going on around him? Can he think? Can he feel? These monstrous possibilities go far in expressing the novel’s image of the madness of war.

Fanaticism informs the narrative of Catch-22. A democracy has declared war on the fascist powers because they are aggressively antidemocratic, inhumane, and uncivilized, but the U.S. military establishment is revealed repeatedly as itself being antidemocratic and quasi fascist. The novel challenges many sacred assumptions on the side of the victors of World War II and raises the suspicion of hypocrisy at every turn.


Catch-22 is a satire Satire on the bureaucratic madness of the military and on the logical inanity of the military mind. In a curious twist of fate, this peculiar antiwar novel managed to attract two otherwise incompatible audiences. To veterans of World War II, it was a hilarious reminder of the chaos and disorder that seemed always to hover just beneath the structured surface of military life. To them it was the way things were, and if it poked fun at the military, it was simply stating the obvious, not grinding an ax.

To others, however, especially as the decade of the 1960’s progressed and the war in Vietnam escalated, the novel was the ultimate pacifist tract, the best reasoning yet presented for turning one’s back on war of any kind and lighting out for neutral ground. The very catch in military logic that it ridiculed—the infamous Catch-22—was also their way out: “Be crazy, it’s all crazy anyway.” As disenchantment with American foreign policy abroad and domestic oppression at home mounted, Catch-22 became the rationale for opposition, desertion, draft dodging, dropping out, whatever it took to lodge a passive protest against what many considered to be an unjust war.

Treating Catch-22 as merely another antiwar novel does not account for its phenomenal impact. What does account for it is the book’s premise that military methods make a mockery of political goals. Because of the very nature of war, the book asserts, even a “good war” will become an evil, extremist enterprise. World War II may have begun as an idealistic war, with justifiable, humanitarian aims, but it quickly degenerated—as all wars do—into a self-negating, militaristic crusade. No matter how noble the ends, the means become identical with those of the enemy. This was the message that most appealed to young readers of the 1960’s, and it is this message that continues to influence those who opposed all military action.

Heller wrote the novel during the Korean War, but it appeared at the dawn of the Vietnam War and found its greatest popularity during the time that war was escalating. The time was right, then, for an assault against the rationalization of what Dwight D. Eisenhower had called the “Crusade in Europe” and for a blanket denunciation of war for any reason and against any enemy.

Catch-22 also provided readers with not only a rationale for evading military duty but also a destination. “I’m not running away from my responsibilities,” says Yossarian as, at the end of the novel, he takes off for Sweden, a favorite place of exile for those avoiding Vietnam. “I’m running to them.” To war protesters, of course, Yossarian’s decision pointed the way for their own escape from an immoral obligation. They found running away to be much braver than going off to fight a war in which they did not believe.

The term “catch-22” has become a permanent part of the English language, and the novel continues to attract new readers. By and large, however, its day might have passed and its message might not have the same impact. Perhaps the ultimate “catch-22” is that war’s very absurdity is at bottom its most irresistible attraction and that antiwar novels, like all warnings, whet an appetite for the thing they warn against. Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch twenty two]

Further Reading

  • Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Park Bucker. Joseph Heller: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. A 240-page resource on writings by and about Heller. Recommended for readers interested in Heller’s overall work.
  • Kam, Rose. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1985. A good, serviceable introduction to this complex work. Contains all the standard critical responses plus excellent character sketches and a fair chronology of events. Good material on background and reception of the book.
  • Kiley, Frederick T., and Walter McDonald, eds. A “Catch-22” Casebook. New York: Crowell, 1973. A wide-ranging collection of materials on the first decade of Catch-22. Includes several reviews, critical essays, interviews, and informal articles on the book and on the film.
  • Merrill, Robert. Joseph Heller. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Critical studies of all of Heller’s novels and plays. The section on Catch-22 discusses the novel’s generic classification as well as the relationship of structure and meaning.
  • Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on “Catch-22.” Los Angeles: Dickenson, 1974. Essays, including some solicited just for this volume, on all of Heller’s major works, with a useful introductory essay by Nagel on the history of Heller scholarship.
  • Potts, Stephen W.“Catch-22”: Antiheroic Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A lively, thorough look at Heller’s major novel. Fresh, original, and provocative. Contains excellent reference tools, including a comprehensive bibliography and a chronology of the novel’s events.
  • _______. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. 2d rev. ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995. An earlier (1982) version of the author’s challenging insights into this phenomenal book. Mature, reasoned, and thoroughly readable.
  • Ramsey, Vance. “From Here to Absurdity: Heller’s Catch-22.” In Seven Contemporary Authors, edited by Thomas B. Whitbread. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968. An early essay relating the issues of sanity, absurdity, and antiheroism.
  • Richter, David H. “The Achievement of Shape in the Twentieth Century Fable: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.” In Fable’s End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. An analysis of Heller’s method as representing a modern breakthrough in fabulist literature.
  • Seed, David. The Fiction of Joseph Heller: Against the Grain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Catch-22 as seen within the context of Heller’s other, less successful books. Throws new light on the phenomenal success of Catch-22 compared to the indifferent reception to Heller’s other works.

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