Monday, 7 March 2016

The Bureaucratic Nightmare - Joseph Heller's Catch-22

I had just managed to make my way through this book a second time, namely because I wanted to write a review of it on Goodreads (and Booklikes), and while it was pretty rushed, I had decided that I would leave it at that and move on to my next book (and project). However, as I am prone to do, I read through some of the other reviews of Goodreads (such as this one, this one, and this one) when I realised that I simply couldn't just leave it at that scrappy piece of work that I wrote up on the train on my way home from work. Okay, while I have covered a number of points, albiet briefly, I suddenly realised that there is so much more to this book that I had to continue with my exposition on this blog.

A Phenomenal Work

As I have already written in my review, this book basically introduced a new phrase into the English language - Catch-22 - which basically means a no win situation, or as I put it, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. However, my position is that while this is significant in and of itself, the book actually goes much further than that and in effect creates a style of absurdist literature that has effectively defined American (and English) literature since. For instance we see elements of Catch-22 appearing in writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Grant Naylor, and even The Simpsons (and its sister show Futurama). It is not so much the actual theme of the novel that has inspired these works, but the style that Heller uses to make his point.

The thing with Catch-22 is that it isn't actually a story. Most stories have a plot that moves from the beginning to the end. Catch-22 doesn't - it jumps all over the place. You see a similar style with Slaughterhouse Five, though in this book Vonnegut uses the concept of the main character becoming unstuck in time, which is why the story is moving all over the place. Another example is how Heller creates this microcosm on a small island in the Mediterranian that paints a picture of modern society. As he says at the beginning of the book, the entire work is fiction, and all of the events that happen in the book simply could not happen on that particular island. We see the same thing happening in the Simpsons, which is set in small town America, but the things that happen in Springfield simply could not happen in your average American small town.

For a small town, it's actually pretty big.

Before I go onto the themes themselves, another thing that I discovered about this book is that it is the number one (apparently) unfinished book to date - meaning that quite a lot of people start it, and of those people that start it only a few of them manage to get through to the end. Me, well I've read it twice and the first time I read it I literally lapped it up. However as I was going through all of the books that I've read I realised that there are a number of them that I simply could not do justice by simply writing a review with what I remembered about it - Catch-22 was one of those books. However, as I began reading it again I suddenly realised that it is actually a really, really hard slog - especially the second time around. However, I have since finished it, as is evident of me writing this blog.

The Bureaucratic Horror

The one thing that stands out in this novel is the bureaucracy. In fact when I checked out Sparknotes I discovered that their first theme was the power of absolute bureaucracy, and this is a constant theme throughout the book. The thing with bureaucracy is that it is nothing new - the Chinese were quite famous for it back in the middle ages, but with the development of computers it just seemed to forever grow.

Therein lies your life history
The thing with bureaucracies is that they have to record everything because unless it has been recorded then there is no proof that anything happened. However that is where the catch lies because if something has been recorded then it must be the truth, simply because there is a record of this event. Sure, it could be a mistake (or even a fraud), but the bureaucracy (or at least Heller's bureaucracy) is incapable of accepting that because a record of an event proves the existence of an event.

Bureaucracy has been around in one form of another ever since people began to trade goods of services and wrote these transactions down as proof of the transaction. In fact when people started fencing off areas of land and claiming as their own, they also created documents to support that assertion (especially since carrying a big stick didn't always work - especially if somebody with a bigger stick challenged that assertion). As these documents increase, people were needed to authenticate these documents, file these documents, and then retrieve them at a later date. In fact a whole profession arose whose simple purpose was to interpret these documents, and to make fine sounding arguments as to why their interpretation of this document was the correct interpretation - yep, the legal profession.

The things with these documents, as I have suggested, is that that have a power in and of themselves. If a document exists, and something is written on that document, then what is written on that document is the truth. We see this time and time again in Catch-22, particularly with the 'death' of Doc Daneeka, and Yossarian moving the bomb line. With Doc Daneeka, a document existed that said that he was on a plane, and that plane crashed, and nobody saw Doc Daneeka jump out of that plane, so because the plane crashed, and the document said that Doc Daneeka was on that plane, then ergo, Doc Daneeka must be dead. It didn't actually matter that Doc Daneeka was on the ground with everybody else watching the plane crash - that was irrelevant - the document said he was on the plane, therefore he must be on that plane.

Washinton Irving is another classic example. One of the tasks that soldiers in the medical unit had to perform was censoring letters, however it was a really boring task. Therefore Yossarian, who was in the hospital simply because he did not want to fly planes, decided to sign all the letters Washington Irving. This was picked up by one of the majors, and all of the sudden the staff at HQ discovered that there was this guy running around called Washington Irving, signing all these letters that he really shouldn't be signing. As such, despite the fact that Washington Irving simply did not exist, the mere fact that these letters appeared with his name on it was evidence enough that he did exist, and because his signature appears at the bottom of letters that he shouldn't be signing, then he must be a spy. As such the bureaucracy has not only killed a person that is still alive, but it created a fictitious person out of thin air.

The Disconnected Generals

Sometimes I wonder if Heller was using the military as a metaphor for the modern business world. In a lot of ways the business community and the military operate on similar lines, and the bigger the organisation the more like the military that it becomes. In fact businesses are engaged in a perpetual war against their competitors to attempt to gain as many customers as possible, so as to make as much profit as possible so that the shareholders will remain happy. In a way the business may claim to be supportive of the customer, however in many cases it is a tension between the customer and the shareholders (namely because shareholders are the ones that provide the capital).

Heller paints the modern military as one giant bureaucracy, and in a way it is. Actually, when you come to think of it the military has always been a bureaucracy - it is necessary when you are trying to co-ordinate such large numbers of people. However, this has really only existed in sophisticated cultures. In the medieval times armies were raised when the kings called upon their lords to join him in battle, and once the war was over the lords would return to their own lands to continue with their own lives. However the problem was that the king needed to maintain the loyalty of his lords, and did not have direct control over the troops. The same was the case with Rome - the legions were owned by the generals, and the commanders needed to maintain the loyalty of the generals for the army to be effective.

The problem with the modern army is that the guys at the top - the generals - are generally disconnected from the troops below. In a way all the general sees are the maps and the markings on the maps - they don't see the actual battle. To obtain information from the actual battles it needs to be passed up from the people at the front, through the so called chain of command. This, no doubt, leads to a game of Chinese Whispers. Okay, in the modern army it is based on messages being passed up and down the chain, but because of the disconnected nature of the bureaucracy the messages end up making little to no sense to the people at the receiving end.

There are a couple of instances of this in the novel, such as when General Peckham asks if there is any poet alive that makes any money, and ex-PFC Wintergreen screams out over the phone 'T.S. Elliot' and slams it down without actually telling anybody who he was. This sets in motion a chain of events were the military leadership is trying to work out what the phrase 'T.S. Elliot' means, without being able to connect it back to the original statement. In the end they decide that it is some sort of code, so they pick up the phone, scream 'T.S. Elliot' into it, and slam it back down again, thinking that it is an important code. In the end it lands back with ex-PFC Wintergreen.

We also have the bombing pattern. In fact by the end of the book, the bombing pattern becomes all important, except, as the generals mention, it is absolutely meaningless. The nature of the bombing pattern, as they point out, has no purpose what-so-ever, expect to take some pretty pictures so that high command can actually see that something has been done. Throughout most of the book the bombing raids are occurring over Bologna, however there does not seem to be any movement whatsoever in the war, so they decide to change the bombing pattern. This, of course, makes no sense, except that it sounds like they are making decisions, when in reality, on the ground, nothing is changing.

There is some movement in the war though, expect that it has more to do with something Yossarian does by moving the bomb line on the map than anything else. This is another example of the absurdity of the Bureaucracy - because the bomb line has been moved on the map, everyone believes that a major victory has been achieved, despite the fact that the victory only came about because the line was moved by Yossarian. In a way it points out that the bureaucratic machine does not question, it just accepts, because if it is written down then it must be true.

They're working out a bombing pattern

This brings me to another point with the generals and that is the number of missions. Colonel Cathcart believes that by getting his men to fly more missions then it will impress high command, which means that he will be more likely to get a promotion. However the number of missions never stays the same - sometimes there is a reason that he raises the missions, other times it is arbitrary. The same goes with Colonel Schieskopf, who believes that the best was to get a promotion is to get his men to perform the perfect parade. Neither of these things have any benefit to the war at hand - it is not the quantity of missions that count, but the quality, however one of the major flaws with bureaucracy is that it is impossible to measure quality - it is always subjective - so the temptation is to always fall back onto quantity, particularly since it is perceived that more is better.

Herding Cats

One of the purposes of bureaucracy is to try to create order out of chaos, which in itself can be an impossible task. However war has always been chaotic, as was pointed out by Von Clausewiz in using the term Fog of War. This is why armies used to wear brightly coloured uniforms - so that soldiers could distinguish friend from foe. In the heat of combat, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have to time to try to recognise a face, especially if you don't know everybody in your army. The same went with the king - you would always find him on the battle field because he would be under a huge banner (and the generals would be under smaller banners). While it was useful for communication purposes, it did have the effect of pointing out the best targets to the enemy.

Yet war has always been a tricky business, especially in a democracy, and even more so in an industrialised war. In years past all the king needed to do was to call up his lords, and his lords would round up their men. There was no concept of individual freedom, and if your lord said jump, you would automatically reply with 'how high'. The modern world has changed this because we all see ourselves as individuals - and this has become more so these days with people regularly getting out onto the streets to protest any and every military action. Further, without conscription, he army has to sell itself to get recruits, as opposed to forcing people to join.

This is how you herd cats - not!
Okay, many people fought in World War II because they viewed it as a good war, however this wasn't an army of soldiers, it was an army of individuals who had been given some basic training and then sent out to fight. Thus the generals and the commanders need to be able to keep these people in line, which can be almost as difficult as herding cats. We especially see this with the protagonist Yossarian, who is always looking for ways to get out of flying missions. It is not simply enough to raise the number of missions, one has to have bait behind it as well - fly this number of missions and you get to go home.

There is another incident I see in this book as well, though it seems that it ends up creating the opposite effect. Bureaucracy is supposed to create order, but that is on the assumption that everything goes correctly - when it doesn't it breaks down. This is the case of Mudd, the dead man in Yossarian's tent. He had died before he officially arrived, and his stuff was moved into Yossarian's tent, however because he never officially arrived at the base, nobody can actually remove any of his belongings, so his bed, in effect, remains occupied. In an ordered world his possessions would be shipped back to the United States, but this isn't an ordered world, this is a bureaucratic world, and thus while trying to create order, it has instead expanded chaos.

Unrestrained Capitalism

Okay, it seems to be a bit of a side plot to the book as a whole (though sometimes one wonders whether there are actually any sideplots) but Milo's M&M Enterprises is a clear example of unrestrained capitalism. Milo is the mess officer, but he takes his role as the mess officer to the extreme. At first he manages to obtain eggs cheaply (at about 2c a dozen) and flies them back to the base where he sells them for 3c a dozen (that is probably not correct, but it is a good example of how he starts things off). At first he is flying them from Malta, however he soon works out that he can make greater profits from exploiting price differences at multiple locations - which is traditionally how trade works.

However as Milo's enterprise grows we suddenly discover that the whole question of morality is suddenly being thrown out of the window, namely because he begins to exploit price differences in places that are controlled by the enemy. This, no doubt, is illegal, yet for some reason Milo gets away with it, in may cases because he resorts back to the argument of 'the syndicate' in which everybody gets a share. In fact, because he has managed to convince everybody that they have an interest in the syndicate, and are profiting from the syndicate, he manages to even requisition planes for use in his enterprises.

However Heller seems to be quite prescient with the way capitalism is heading. For instance Milo contracts the allies to bomb some bridges, and offers his equipment for the purposes (for a fee of course) and then contracts with the enemy to defend these bridges using his equipment (once again for a fee), however he then manages to convince them that they already have the equipment needed, so suggests that they use their own, and ends up walking away with a pretty big profit.

In a way war has always been a very profitable enterprise, however it is becoming ever more so in the modern capitalist age. In times past profit came simply from conquering land and stealing treasures, though gaining access to resources was also important. However with the modern industrialised world we discover that there are numerous corporations that make huge amounts of money from war - no doubt through selling weapons and other equipment to the belligerents. In fact there is a suggestion from Heller that there were companies that existed that sold to both sides during the war. He also points out the cost plus idea, where the company charges the government the cost of performing a service, plus a profit on top. When we come to contractors and sub-contractors this becomes even more evident.

Milo also makes a comment that the army is the last socialist institution that exists, however even today this is beginning to change, with various parts of the armed services being contracted out to the highest bidder. In a way the armed services are becoming a capitalist entity in and of itself. In the past, where various units would perform logistical work, this is now being offered to other companies, and of course many of these companies do a pretty substandard job simply because it is the army and many of these organisations see it as a bottomless pit of money. Even the roll of the mess hall is being subsumed by the private sector. Mind you, this is not surprising as the troops are now taking a little bit of America to whatever base they are being stationed at.

All the comforts of home - on the other side of the world

Ground-Hog Day

I'm sure we all remember the movie from the early nineties in which Bill Murray would wake up on the same day over and over again, to the point that he seemed to be forever living that same day. For those who don't remember it (or haven't see it) here is the trailer:

Since this movie, the term Groundhog Day has entered our vocabulary to suggest that we are living the same day over and over again with no end in sight. Unfortunately for us, unlike Bill Murray, there is a difference and that is that we are growing ever older. However in a way life in the bureaucratic world, or I should probably say life in general, exists in its own form of Groundhog Day. Nothing ever changes, we get up, we go to work, we go home, and wake up to begin it all over again. Yet even the weeks, and the years, seem to be this endless repetition in which we never seem to go anywhere.

Everybody lives in Groundhog Day
This is very much mirrored in Catch-22, and in fact Heller doesn't write the story progressing through time, but rather jumping back and forward through a set period to catch the essence of the endless cycle. The only way that we know that we are in the past, or the future, is purely by the number of missions. In a way nothing ever changes, and that seems to reflect not just the nature of the modern world, but of life itself. The missions are always flying over Bologna, and life seems to consist of wandering around the base, attending USO shows, flying to Rome for R&R, and flying missions.

Okay, there are minor changes, and we see that in our lives, especially if we live in an office. Somebody might leave, or a new person (or people) might join, however it quickly returns to that dull endless cycle that seems to go over and over again. I guess that even though things may change, in the end they always stay the same. It is the epitome of hopelessness, where we come to work, go home, and in a way do not seem to have any goal or purpose in life. It is almost as if once we leave university and get that job for many of us our ambitions cease to exist. Don't get me wrong, some people enjoy that certainly to life, yet to other there seems to be this really deep sense of hopelessness - and this, no doubt, is what drives Yossarian mad.

The Absurdity of War

Well, it seems like this post has become really, really long, but this has a lot to do with there being so many ideas that seem to permeate this book. Mind you, I have noticed that a lot of people don't like this book, and it can be very difficult to get through, especially due to the idea of nothing changing and nothing actually happening. However before I finish off there are a couple of things that I want to touch upon, an one of them being the idea of the absurdity of war.

It has been suggested that Catch-22 is an anti-war novel, and while it is not the first, it certainly has given us a new glimpse on the nature of war in the modern world. In fact it seems that war is a natural fact of life, which is not surprising since people just don't want to be able to get along, and our natural state is to be in conflict with each other, even in the most minor ways. People do not like to be challenged, especially when they consider themselves to be an expert in an area. In fact dealing with experts can be really frustrating at times, especially when you don't agree with their method or their conclusions.

So, since humans are in perpetual conflict with each other, when we rise through the ranks to the leaders of countries we discover that this natural conflict rises to a new level. While a conflict with our next-door neighbour may be a nuisance for us, and those in our immediate vicinity, when the conflict begins to occur between the rulers of two countries, then the people of the entire country get dragged into the picture. In many cases wars can be boiled down to two leaders taking their disagreements to the level of violence. This is the absurdity of the situation - the citizens of the country are literally dragged into a conflict that is not of their making and not of their concern.

We see this in Catch-22 as we are given glimpses at the top ranking officials and the enlisted men. Even within the military bureaucracy there are conflicts between the top ranking officials, particularly between General Dreedle and General Peckham. The problem is that when you have high ranking officials in disagreement, all of the people beneath them get dragged into the argument. Mind you, it might not even be a legitimate disagreement - it might simply be that somebody wants what somebody else has. While it is illegal to steal my neighbours delorian, it seems that it is a different story when somebody wants somebody else's resources, or wants to force somebody to join their club, a club that the other person has no intention of joining.


Thus we come back to the title of the book - you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. This becomes moreso as we move into the modern age. We might not agree with something - in fact we might violently object to something, yet we have no choice but to go along with it. This was very much the case with the Vietnam War. As the war dragged on people became more and more opposed to it, but the problem was that the United States had conscription, which meant that if you had been called up to fight, then you had no choice but to go, even if you didn't agree with the war. The same went for the enlisted men during the Iraq War - they had joined the army, and because they had joined the army, if they were sent to Iraq they had to go to Iraq, even if they didn't agree.

In many cases this is the same with our civilian life - in a way we live in a state of a perpetual Catch-22. We need a roof over our head, so we need money, which means we have to get a job. It's is not that I am criticising working, but the catch is that without money you can't live, so you need a job, but while you have a job, you may have money but you don't have time, which means you can't train to get a better job, and because you can't train you can't increase your income to the point where you can take some time out from that job to train and get a better job.

Here are 15 Things You Might Not Know about Catch 22.

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The Bureaucratic Nightmare - Joseph Heller's Catch-22 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.


  1. This book is on my list.

    On the issue of bureaucracy, there was a Soviet era film entitled Lt. Kije, most notable for the brilliant score by Sergei Prokofiev. As in Catch-22, the problem of a mistake becoming "real" drives the plot. A typographical error brings the fictional Lt. Kije to "life," and his story gets more and more involved as the bureaucrats continue the fiction of his existence. Eventually, the Tsar asks to meet him, and they frantically invent the story of his death. The film was *supposedly* meant to ridicule the Tsarist era, but everyone knew that, deep down, it criticized the Soviet era just as well...

  2. It's certainly worth reading. That film sounds like it's pretty cool, I'm going to have to keep an eye out for it.