There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. 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. He would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause and let out a respectful whistle:
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Yossarian was moved deeply day and night and what moved him more deeply than anything else was the fact that they were trying to murder him.
“Who’s ‘they‘?” Clevenger wanted to know. “Who, specifically, 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?”
Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, so it was of no use for Clevenger to say “No one is trying to kill you.”
“Then why are they shooting at me?”
“They’re shooting at everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Clevenger decided, “you don’t know who you hate.”
“Whoever is trying to poison me.”
“Nobody is trying to poison you.”
“They poisoned my food twice, didn’t they? Didn’t they put poison in my food at Ferrara and during the Great Big Siege of Bologna?”
“They put poison in everybody’s food,” Clevenger explained.
“And what difference does that make?”
There was no established procedure for evasive action. All you needed was fear, and Yossarian had plenty of that. He bolted wildly for his life on each mission the instant his bombs were away. When he fufilled the thirty-five missions required of each man of his group, he asked to be sent home.
Colonel Cathcart had by then raised the missions required to forty. When Yossarian had flown forty he asked to be sent home. Colonel Cathcart had raised the missions required to forty-five–there did seem to be a catch somewhere. Yossarian went into the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. If it became jaundice the doctors could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. Yossarian decided to spend the rest of the war in bed by running a daily temperature of 101. He had found a catch of his own.
To preserve his sanity against the formalized lunacy of the military mind in action, Yossarian had to turn madman. Yet even Yossarian is more the patriot than Sgt. Minderbinder, the business mind in action. Even Yossarian has to protest when Minderbinder arranges with the Germans to let them knock American planes down at a thousand dollars per plane. Minderbinder is horrified–“Have you no respect for the sanctity of a business contract?” he demands of Yossarian, and Yossarian feels ashamed of himself.
Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II. The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity are lost within it. That the horror and the hypocrisy, the greed and the complacency, the endless cunning and the endless stupidity which now go to constitute what we term Christianity are dealt with here in absolutes, does not lessen the truth of its repudiation. Those happy few who hit upon Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian will find that, what Southern said with some self-doubt, Heller says with no doubt whatsoever. To compare Catch-22 favorably with The Good Soldier Schweik would be an injustice, because this novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.