catch - 22 themes

Themes - Catch-22 #

Bureaucratic organisations and institutions #

Institutional rot begins with a rift between managers and workers. Australian University Professors described their universities as being exploitative, oppressive, toxic and fiscally driven. They felt themselves being dehumanised and demoralised by management. Most reported experiencing feelings associated with burnout, including anxiety, cynicism, depression and exhaustion.

The “craziness of university decisions and processes”, “the absurdity”, the conflicting demands and constant institutional change have led to them losing interest, spirit and hope. Craig Whitsed, Curtin University, Antonia Girardi, Murdoch University - The Conversation 07/06/22

The dominant theme of Catch-22, appears to be organisational heirarchies where the high command see enlisted men as “military assets” and treat those below them as nameless quantities. War is reduced to a paper battle between Generals Peckem and Dreedle where each compete for more men, equipment and supplies to contribute to the prestige of their position.

The irony is that while the bureaucratic mindsets, with no public interests in mind, play their games, the world suffers; “Nothing warped seems bizarre anymore in this strange distorted surroundings”

The cruel rules, irrational circularities, and capricious administration that Heller identified in the US military clearly resonate, too, with readers’ experience of political or corporate bureaucracies in civilian life. Franz Kafka spotted these tendencies in early 20th century Prague, but it was 20th century America that invented, and then spread globally, management as an industry and pseudo-science that has become more Kafkaesque than anything Kafka imagined. So this aspect of the narrative has increasingly resonated with bewildered and beleaguered employees, customers, and voters.

Major Sanderson tells Yossarian he isn’t Yossarian because the form says so: “I’ve got an official Army record here to prove it.”

They can’t remove Mudd’s belongings from Yossarian’s tent, because he failed to register before he was killed on a mission. The only ones who might have seen Mudd, the men in the same plane, had all been blown to bits with him. So he doesn’t exist and has never existed, as far as the Air Force is concerned

Doc Daneeka had McWatt put his name on his flight manifest before he crashed it into the side of a mountain, and since Daneeka didn’t come down in a parachute he is officially dead. Mrs Daneeka learns of her husbands supposed death and grief becomes an embarrassment. Accepting all his insurance and payouts, she moves away and takes on a new identity.

Bureaucracies have become so commonplace and ingrained that we seldom question their purpose and authority, yet, according to anthropologist and anarchist, David Graeber, they inform every aspect of our existence – “bureaucracy has become the water in which we swim”.

According to Dom Amerena, the best artistic satires occur in Kafka’s The Trial and in Heller’s Catch-22. Graeber claims bureaucracies derive their power from the veiled threat of state sanctioned violence against non-compliance or even criticism.

Some critics suggest that corporations and institutions have become the new evil “robber barons” with no public interest in mind. Some have found symptoms of psychopathy, e.g., the callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to appreciate human relationships, the reckless disregard for the safety of others, the deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit), the incapacity to experience guilt, and the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law.

Institutions, we treasured and trusted, have betrayed us to satisfy the venal, self- serving and power-crazed appetites of an unprincipled, unrestrained, vainglorious and cynical few.

In the 1950’s President Eisenhower was the first to warn us of the subtle incremental dangers of transformative power grabs like the rise of The Military Industrial Complex. Since then multitudes of other powerful bulwark organisations have risen that threaten our democracy by assuming untrammeled power; including, but not limited to: multi-national mining companies, the American Rifle Association, Monsanto, Drug and Medical Supply Companies, the telecommunication industry, the legal/judicial industry.

Eisenhower’s largest challenge came from Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. In part to preserve party unity, Eisenhower had refused to publicly condemn Senator McCarthy’s charges of communist influence within the government. Although privately Eisenhower expressed his distaste for the senator, at times he seemed to encourage the attacks of McCarthyites.

Hundreds of federal employees were fired under his expanded loyalty-security program. With his approval Congress passed a law designed to outlaw the American Communist Party. Following the sensational hearings on McCarthy’s charges against army and civilian officials, televised nationally for five weeks in the spring of 1954, McCarthy’s popularity waned, as did the anticommunist hysteria.……..

The more monolithic bureaucracies become, the more they are reinforced by their remoteness; their schizoid disconnection from grounded reality. Incestuous institutions like the Catholic Church, the legal judicial fraternity or global corporations can become moribund due to calcification or entrenchment.

A self serving careerist mind set develops that they exist for themselves rather than for the greater good of the public. Some believe that their institution exists simply to provide them with a job; not the other way around. Subject to groupthink, they become reluctant to hear opposing views or to work with anyone perceived to be on the outside. Some live high up in an ivory tower; embedded in a bubble world doubling as an echo chamber. The peer review process becomes dysfunctional.

Only a seismic paradigm shift can change entrenched mind sets. What we need are not only better individuals; we need a better system to make up for individual flaws, rather than a culture and practice of concealment. Good leaders reset the cultural norms by making staff accountable and thus raising the standards.

When Doc Daneeka was asked:

‘What is your business?’

‘I don’t know what my business is. All they ever told me was to uphold the ethics of my profession and never give testimony against another physician.

All professions harbor individuals of varying degrees of incompetence for different reasons. It is in the long term interest of all professions to weed out the worst offenders. They are a danger – cause injury, not only to the public, but by undermining the faith, confidence and authority of the institution. The reputation of one Judge/Priest/individual is not more important than maintaining the public confidence of the entire institution.

Corporations #

Inference #

Themes The Army is one of the most heirarchical institutions in the world. New recruits soon lose their individuality and become part of a machine. “Yours is not to question why, but to do and die”. They soon connect and relate to their comrades.

General Washington, insisted that the rabble in the army needed to be respected, too: a democratic army required democratic measures.

“The genius of this nation, “is not to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French. You say to your soldier, ‘Do this!’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that’ and then he does it.”

“that’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.”

Medicine #

The first chapter and many others are based on a hospital where doctors can’t treat the sick or recognise malingers. They fail to diagnose Yossarian’s jaundice, are confused by his symptoms. Their limited vision of black and white reveals a blinkered attitude. Their quick antidote to puzzling symptoms is an easy solution, “give them another pill”.

“They couldn’t dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane.”

The narrowness inherent in a vortex of specialists who know their field but not the whole picture is parodied by the Corporal of Communications.

There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by a faulty anode in an I.B.M. machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him. (cetologist – studies whales and dolphins)

The colonel had really been investigated. There was not an organ of his body that had not been drugged and derogated, dusted and dredged, fingered and photographed, removed, plundered and replaced. Most of the patients are suffering from non-combat injuries – as combat injuries are fatal.

Yossarian was anxious. There were lymph glands that might do him in. There were kidneys, nerve sheaths and corpuscles. There were tumors of the brain. There was Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Principles #

As always occurred when Clevinger quarreled over principles in which he believed passionately, he would end up gasping furiously for air and blinking back bitter tears of conviction. There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.

Society is insane to believe in, die and kill for principles.

“mankind is resilient: the atrocities that horrified us a week ago become acceptable tomorrow.”

Soldiers do suffer from moral injury. The fog of war demands they suspend their humanity. Drill sargeants do their best to brutalise raw recruits to the fact that it remains a matter of survival - either kill or get killed.

The greatest horror begins with an attack on the undefended Italian mountain village full of innocent civilians, reducing the whole community to rubble.

General Dreedle:

‘I have it from Wintergreen that the mission is entirely unnecessary. It s only purpose is to delay German reinforcements at a time when we aren’ t even planning an offensive. But that’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.’

The enlisted men have serious moral qualms about it:

‘Have the people in the village been warned?’ asked McWatt .
Major Danby was dismayed that McWatt too was registering opposition. ’ No, I don’t think so.’
’ Haven’t we dropped any leaflets telling them that this time we’ ll be flying over to hit them?’ asked Yossarian. ’ Can’ t we even tip them off so they’ ll get out of the way?’

’ No, I don’ t t hink so.’ Major Danby was sweating some more and still shifting his eyes about uneasily. ’ The Germans might find out and choose another road.

Milo had the face of a man of hardened integrity who could no more consciously violate the moral principles on which his virtue rested than he could transform himself into a despicable toad.

Milo reasoning shrewdly that anyone who would not steal from the country he loved would not steal from anybody.

One of these moral principles was that it was never a sin to charge as much as the traffic would bear. Milo was capable of mighty paroxysms of righteous indignation, and he was indignant as could be when he learned that a C.I.D. man was in the area looking for him. (Irony)

“This time Milo had gone to far. Bombing his own men and planes was more than even the most phlegmatic observer could stomach, and it looked like the end for him…Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made.”

“You (Yossarian) have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You’re dangerous and depraved, and you ought to be taken outside and shot!”

“Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”

Nately to an old man in Rome:

’Don’ t you have any principles?’
’ Of course not .’
’ No morality?’

’ Oh, I am a very moral man,’ the villainous old man assured him with satiric seriousness, stroking the bare hip of a buxom black-hair ed girl wit h pretty dimples who had stretched her self out seductively on the other arm of his chair.

“When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.”

Lying #

The Chaplain had sinned, and it was good. Common sense told him that telling lies and defecting from duty were sins, but it felt good. The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization:

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Scheisskopf is angry because he was promised he could organise Parades and is now being denied:

Scheisskopf: “They had no right to lie to me.” Peckham: “Of course they had a right,….people have a right to do anything that is not forbidden by law and there’s no law against lying to you.”


“You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail”. Captain Korn on granting Yossarian a medal.

Power, to some, is measured and exercised through the evasion of accountability. As Tacitus stated: “crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity”

….Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…… There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Lord Acton

Sophistry, also known as Eristic or Specious arguments; involve the use of subtle, sophisticated, and sometimes deceptive argument and reasoning, especially on moral issues, in order to justify something or to mislead.

Casuistry the use of subtle, sophisticated, and sometimes deceptive argument and reasoning, especially on moral issues, in order to justify something or mislead.


Eris was the Greek goddess of strife (the Roman Discordia). It was Eris who cunningly dropped a golden apple with the inscription “to the fairest” into a feast, inciting three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—to bicker over who deserved it and thus launching the ten-year Trojan War.

Eris is present in presidential debates, in court rooms and wherever people are talking not to discover truth but to win.

A Jedi mind trick implants a suggestion in the minds of those they encounter, encouraging them to comply with the Jedi’s wishes.

Socrates considered the debate in such settings unedifying, pointless and unworthy—in a word, “eristic”.

Dogmatic assertion is the tyrant’s “stock in trade”, attempting to confer the air of authority and bully us into grudging silence, compliance and acceptance rather than inspiring confidence and belief in the truth.

It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittengenstein calls the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language and eristic argument.

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.

Richard Flanagan claims the inescapable lesson of history is that power given up will be abused and is extremely difficult to regain. War takes away power, especially from soldiers who are expected “Not to question why, but to do and die”. Yossarian puts up an spirited and heroic resistance to the deprivations of war – especially soldiers’ inherent freedom.

The greatest moral dilemma facing the enlisted men is the attack on the undefended Italian mountain village, to block German supply lines. They object of killing innocent civilians.

Treatment of Women #

War creates a situation where love becomes alien - it becomes a need - an unnatural lust for an expression of power.

The old man in Rome justifies why he is proud of his daughter:

Prostitution gives her an opportunity to meet people. It provides fresh air and wholesome exercise, and it keeps her out of trouble.

On leave in Rome, the enlisted men and the officers share an apartment where the officers commandeer Nately’s whore.

This could be a parody of The Iliad where Agamemnon and Achilles squabble over Briseis.

Yossarian missed Nurse Duckett so much that he went searching hungrily through the streets for Luciana, How he yearned for both girls! Despair gnawed at him. Visions beset him. He wanted Nurse Duckett with her dress up and her slim thighs bare to the hips. He banged a thin street walker with a wet cough who picked him up from an alley between hotels, but that was no fun at all and he hastened to the enlisted men’s apartment for the fat , friendly maid in the lime-colored panties,who was overjoyed to see him but couldn’t arouse him. He went to bed there early and slept alone. He woke up disappointed and banged a sassy, short , chubby girl he found in the apartment after breakfast , but that was only a little better, and he chased her away when he’d finished and went back to sleep.

He found Aarfy, who had landed in Rome when Hungry Joe returned with Dunbar, Nately and Dobbs, and who would not go along on the drunken foray that night to rescue Nately’s whore from the middle-aged military big shots holding her captive in a hotel because she would not say uncle.

The officers were utterly demoralized men of distinction.

Each time she slumped over with her eyes closed they shook her awake and made her say ’uncle’ again. Each time she said ’uncle,’ they were disappointed. She wondered how much longer they would sit around naked with her and make her say ‘uncle’.

Dunbar was hurling everything in sight out the window into the court . Dobbs was smashing furniture with an ash stand.

A nude, ridiculous man with a blushing appendectomy scar appeared in the door way suddenly and bellowed.

‘What’s going on here?’
Your toes are dirty,’ Dunbar said.

The man covered his groin with both hands and shrank from view. Dunbar, Dobbs and Hungry Joe just kept dumping everything they could lift out the window with great , howling whoops of happy abandon. They soon finished with the clothing on the couches and the luggage on the floor, and they were ransacking a cedar closet when the door to the inner room opened again and a man who was very distinguished-looking from the neck up padded into view imperiously on bare feet .

’ Here, you, stop that ,’ he barked. ’ Just what do you men think you’ re doing?’

’Your toes are dirty,’ Dunbar said to him.

The man covered his groin as the first one had done and disappeared.

’I’ll thrash you.’ The man raised a fist .

’I’ll thrash you,’ Dunbar warned him coldly. ’ You’ re a German spy, and I ’m going to have you shot .’

’German spy? I’m an American colonel.’

’You don’ t look like an American colonel. You look like a fat man with a pillow in front of him. Where’s your uniform, if you’re an American colonel?

’You just threw it out the window.’

’All right , men,’ Dunbar said. ’ Lock the silly bastard up. Take the silly bastard down to the station house and throw away the key.

’The colonel blanched with alarm. ’ Are you all crazy? Where’ s your badge?

’They’ve thrown our things out the window, General.’

’Good for them. Our uniforms too? That was clever. We’ ll never be able to convince anyone we’re superior without our uniforms’

’Let’s get their names.’

’Oh, Ned, relax,’ said the slender man with practiced weariness. ’ You may be pretty good at moving armored divisions into action, but you’re almost useless in a social situation. Sooner or later we’ll get our uniforms back, and then we’ ll be their superiors again. Did they really throw our uniforms out? That was a splendid tactic.’

’They threw everything out .’ ’ The ones in the closet , too?’ ’ They threw the closet out , General. That was that crash we heard when we thought they were coming in to kill us.’

’And I’ll throw you out next ,’ Dunbar threatened.

The general paled slightly. ’ What the devil is he so mad about ?’ he asked Yossarian.

’He means it , too,’ Yossarian said. ’ You’ d better let the girl leave.

’Lord, take her,’ exclaimed the general with relief . ’All she’s done is make us feel insecure. At least she might have disliked or resented us for the hundred dollars we paid her. But she wouldn’t even do that . Your handsome young friend there seems quite attached to her.

Religion: #

The decline of religious faith, the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress, the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, the loss of a sense of control over human development in an age of totalitarianism, and weapons of mass destruction and mass persuasion, have all eroded a sense of confidence in the future of the world.

The Chaplain is an Anabaptist, who do not go to war. His offsider is an Atheist. Neither of them is able to help any of the men’s problems. Both feel inadequate and useless.

the First Amendment. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The writers of the Constitution, being well aware of the murderous religious wars that had torn Europe apart ever since the rise of Protestantism, wished to avoid that particular death trap. There was to be no state religion. Nor was anyone to be prevented by the state from practicing his or her chosen religion.

The Theocracies of the Puritans was to be terminated.

Mark Twain illustrates the continuing prevalence of religion by The King and The Duke fleecing innocent people by claiming to be the worst sinners, but now converted. Huck’s search for freedom from restrictions involves the attack on religion, piety, hypocrisy, — questions of conscience, good and evil.

God “There’s nothing mysterious about it, He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about, a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

Despair, disillusionment - #

In chapter 39, entitled The Eternal City, Yossarian walks through the desolate destruction of Rome and contemplates the miseries of the world. Its misanthropic bleakness echoes Eliot’s Gerontion or Dylan’s Desolation Road:

“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused, or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, and rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to bodyguards, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere.”