“Who’s they?” He wanted to know. “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?”
“Every one of them,” Yossarian told him.
“Every one of whom?”
“Every one of whom do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then how do you know they aren’t?”
When you think about books about war, what comes to mind ranges from old dusty tomes of battles long ago won and lost, or new, shiny paperbacks with first hand accounts of snipers still fighting a war. Less thought of is Catch-22, because it is easy to forget that it is a book about war- it is sometimes hard to see that it is even when reading. It is comical, absurd and satirical- which is not what is expected from a book about war, but then again, perhaps that’s what is needed.
War is a tricky subject- nobody seems to want it, and yet everyone seems to have been part of one at sometime in their history. There’s a great deal to be said – and a great deal that has been said- about it. Literature has an air of implying that there were positive aspects to war- when Scripps says “you can’t explain away the poetry sir” in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, he quotes Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Joseph Heller does not do this. What he shows us is that war is absurd. He does this without even saying so- but through his characters. Milo Minderbinder, offering “a share” in his company- that amounts to a literal peice of paper with ‘one share’ written on it, and ochestrating attacks in the war for profit, allowing the enemy to attack as long as they allow them to retaliate. Doc Daneeka being declared dead because his name was on the log book of a plane that crashed, despite the fact he is standing right there, telling them he is not dead. The men only being allowed to go into Major Major Major Major’s office when he is not in. Catch-22 itself. Every situation and every character is absurd and crazy- the suggestion being that you would have to be in order to be there.
Clevinger thinks Yossarian is crazy for thinking that they are trying to kill him, but it’s true. It is true that every time they fly a mission, there are people trying to kill them. In truth it is Clevinger who is crazy if he truly feels that no one is trying to kill Yossarian – he has no real response to “Every one of whom do you think?”. He claims to have no idea- but it is clear that Yossarian is referring to the enemy because they are at war, a fact Yossarian has to constantly remind them of.
The entire novel demonstrates the absurdness of it all. What Heller shows here is that war can be absurd- and that this causes those involved to act and think in strange ways. Although Yossarian is frequently declared as being crazy, to the readers he appears to be one of the sanest people there.
The first Catch-22 of the novel is that if someone wants to be grounded, he cannot be crazy, as it is rational to fear the immediate danger he faces when he flies. So therefore if he were crazy, he could be grounded, but to be grounded he would have to ask- which would therefore make him not crazy, and so on. It sums up the essential ridiculousness of the whole thing- it is the situation that is crazy, and not Yossarian.