Catch-22: Is the novel still relevant to modern soldiers?

British soldiers in Helmand, Afghanistan

The classic novel that coined the term describing impossible situations is celebrating its 50th birthday. So how close does Catch-22 come to accurately portraying today's military?

Most people will have uttered a remark about being caught between a rock and a hard place, in a Catch-22 situation. A no-win dilemma where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

But fewer people will have read the 1961 novel of the same name that propelled the phrase into the English language.

Catch-22 was published 50 years ago. Written by Joseph Heller, it describes the wartime experiences of B-25 bombardier, Captain John Yossarian. Heller himself had served as a US Air Force bombardier in World War II.

He drags us through the muck and absurdity of a droll group of WWII airmen stationed on a small island off the coast of Tuscany - taking in the dark and brutal nature of war. In it hero Yossarian takes drastic measures to avoid flying an ever-increasingly required number of dangerous missions.

Catch-22 characters

Bob Balaban - Capt Orr
  • Captain John Yossarian is the protagonist and hero. He is a bombardier in the 256th Squadron of the Army Air Corps during World War II, responsible for sighting and releasing bombs. All he really wants to do is go home.
  • Milo Minderbinder is the mess officer who runs a global black-market syndicate. He pursues profit unscrupulously, going so far as to bomb his own men as part of a contract.
  • Major Major Major Major was born Major Major Major and is unjustly promoted to major. He is uncomfortable with his new role and lonely because it keeps him at a distance from the other men.
  • Colonel Cathcart, who keeps increasing the number of missions the men have to fly to complete a tour of duty, is the bane of Yossarian's life. He's obsessed with promotion and will do anything to please his superiors.
  • General Dreedle is the typical no-nonsense military man, who is exceedingly demanding of his soldiers. His arch-rival General Peckem wants to take his place in Pianosa.
  • Doc Daneeka is disgruntled that he was drafted and is missing out on a lucrative medical career. "Why me?" is his attitude towards war.

The only way to avoid such deadly assignments was to plead insanity, but to do so exposed a desire to live - a core aspect of the sane.

Paul Bates, 42, understands Yossarian's plight. A lieutenant colonel with the British army's Royal Artillery regiment, he is currently working as the operations officer with the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan, he says Heller is spot-on in his depiction of this internal conflict.

"Many observers say that the character of conflict changes because of such things as technological advances. But the nature of conflict, the brutal, chaotic nature of it and the associated emotions - fear, exhilaration, anxiety, courage - remain the same.

"I see that in the book and have experienced it throughout my time in the Army. Yossarian was afraid of dying, so were many of his colleagues, and he was going to do everything in his power to try to prevent it from happening."

Yossarian, who of course was drafted into the war, takes drastic measures to avoid flying dangerous missions. These include poisoning the squadron, making up fictitious ailments to stay in hospital and moving the bomb line on the map during the "Great Big Siege of Bologna".

Lt Col Bates says other Catch-22 characters are just as recognisable.

"Others were fatalists. They say things like: 'If you're destined to be killed over Bologna, then you're going to be killed, so you might just as well go out and die like a man.' Both of these approaches are ways to deal with fear of existing in a profession where you are trained to kill and might be killed yourself.

"I've seen them both on operations along with others, like the blase demeanour of Aarfy or Havermeyer's invincibility complex. I myself am a fatalist. If it's your time, it's your time."

'Self-serving orders'

Lt Col Bates also sees similarities in frustrations surrounding the military's hierarchical organisation, which gives rise to comic, inept characters in command positions such as Cathcart, Dreedle and Peckem.

Start Quote

Dr Roy Heidicker

Bless Joseph Heller for a guidebook for the past 50 years”

End Quote Dr Roy Heidicker

There is a quote in the book: "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three." It sums up a character who was unjustly promoted to the rank of major, on account of his birth name.

"By virtue of their appointment alone and their position in the chain of command, they are allowed to get away with enforcing outrageous self-serving orders that those below are powerless to resist for fear of extreme military punishment," says Col Bates.

Heller wrote of the combat men in the squadron being "bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other", unable to object to orders.

In Catch-22, for those lower down the food chain, there is nowhere to go to question methods. The same can be true today mainly because the army employs the same top-down reporting system that was in place 70 years ago, says Lt Col Bates.

"This is where the military finds itself in a Catch-22. It needs to adopt a strict hierarchical system in order to fulfil its mission. There is little time for debate in a conflict situation. And yet this system can give birth to both brilliance and toxicity."

Joseph Heller Heller, who died in 1999, served as a bombardier in Italy during WWII

When the book was published in 1961, reviews were polarised, ranging from "the best novel in years" to "disorganised, unreadable, and crass". Views still are.

Rex Temple, a retired US Air Force senior master sergeant, says he a hard time reading Heller's comical depiction of life in the armed forces. He found it hard relating to the characters, their actions and their relationships.

"Perhaps I am a bit biased because I served 28 years in a more mature and reformed service. Even past discussions with World War II veterans did not reveal anything like that portrayed in Catch-22.

"Our current military is much more disciplined and respectful than the characters portrayed by Heller. There really is no comparison to the current tours in Afghanistan or Iraq."

Although he did find one similarity - field mice in the tents.

Insanity and absurdity

"Except [now] an individual would be court-martialled if they used their government-issued weapons to kill rodents inside. Generally, it is forbidden to eat food inside because the falling crumbs attract insects, which attract lizards or mice," he says.

Dr Roy Heidicker, 4th Fighter wing historian based at the US Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, says those who serve are too busy with their duties to appreciate the irony of their circumstances.

Catch-22 facts

  • More than 10 million copies sold in 21 languages
  • Time magazine puts Catch-22 in the top 100 English language modern novels
  • Heller started the novel in 1953 and it took him eight years to finish
  • Catch-22 was adapted into a feature film in 1970, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Alan Arkin, Art Garfunkel and Martin Sheen

During his time serving in the US Marine Corps, Dr Heidicker acted as battery supply officer, just like the outrageous Milo Minderbinder - Heller's mess officer who runs an international black-market syndicate.

He pursues profit unscrupulously, but insists that "everyone has a share" in the syndicate. A classic interaction has Minderbinder looking to trick Yossarian into eating, and enjoying, chocolate-covered cotton, as he desperately tries to find a way to feed the men his latest acquisition, seeds and all.

"Milo would have been proud of me as I developed my own 'everybody wins' method of doing business," says Heidicker.

"If battalion supply didn't have it, chances were I did. I brought my system with me when I ran Regimental Special Services and had a flair for trading excess equipment for short equipment resulting in perfect inventories."

When someone writes the next great military novel, Dr Heidicker says, all insanity and absurdity will be documented through politicians, pundits and the man on the street.

"Bless Joseph Heller for a guidebook for the past 50 years. We search, hopefully not in vain, for a guidebook to help us through the next 50."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    The Aardvark Prepares For War maybe derivative of Catch 22 but is still a good read.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Catch 22 is even more relevant today than when it was first written

    Nowadays our corporations and governments buy goods from places like Communist China, who also supply armaments to places like Pakistan and the Afghan rebels who then blow up our soldiers.

    th-th-th-thats capitalism folks!

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    If people had understood Catch-22 back when it was first published, we probably wouldn't have "modern soldiers".

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    @Haisaid - a more accurate statement would be that it's boring for you.
    Obviously for a lot on here it's not boring at all. Including me.

    @chirojupiter - I don't think the fact that it was banned in a couple of towns in the US for a few years in the 1970's really counts. It has never been banned in the UK or indeed 99.99% of the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Catch 22 may be comparable to Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Each of us is an angel and a monster of own self. That is the reality of our metaphysical world, whether in military or just as an ordinary citizen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    @ Cassie. Not challenging. The book is B O R I N G ! ! !

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    I read catch 22 many years ago and do think that nothing has changed I did a tour of Iraq in 2003 and the stuff that some of the officers came out with was straight out of catch 22 nothing changes in the miltary

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    When I got home on leave, one night I went to see the movie, M*A*S*H. If you look at the credits for that movie, Bobby was the jeep driver that drove Hawkeye and Trapper around the golf course when they were on leave in Japan. Bobby's repetitive line: "G*# - damn army!!!" I broke out hysterically when I saw that part at the end of MASH. Everyone in the theatre must have thought I was on drugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    One other chuckle for me was: I was given a 30-day leave from Vietnam after receiving some wounds. In country (VN), the US broadcast radio and television on the Armed Forces Broadcasting System. They ran a series of commercials advocating re-enlistment, and the main character was an actor by the name of Bobby Troup. time and time again, Bobby told us the benefits of 're-upping'. (Cont'd)

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I can appreciate Sam's comment. In Vietnam, our Infantry company had an inspection coming up and 250+ extra M-16's without paperwork or authorization. The SeaBees were building a couple of buildings nearby, so those brand new, unused, still packed in grease M-16's ended up in the concrete floor of one of the hootches. Is probably still there in Chu Lai today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    138 S42Wolf
    You say 'previous armies have come a bit of a cropper there' - lovely British understatement. They were destroyed.
    The answer apparently was to go in half-cock and have absolutely no idea how to end the foolish engagement. Someday it has to end - will the fanatics have been tamed? I wish I had your optimism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.


    The loonies wouldn't have the support of the Afghan farmers if we didn't keep burning their poppies. If we bought their crop instead in order to reduce the worldwide Morphine shortage, the crazies would have nowhere to hide and the drugs warlords would have less income. It's the war on drugs that's causing the problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Having previously served over 5 years in HM Farces, I feel qualified and entitled to comment, I recall our REME unit - desperate for spare parts - 'acquiring ' a military combat vehicle - when the regiment was posted back to the UK from W. Germany, they cut off the serial numbers off and it became part of a new concrete marshalling yard, WO2's and the D Troop 'mafia' ran things, not officers

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Catch-22 is a banned book while Closing Time isn't. Isn't that telling you something?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    136.Mike Zeffertt
    In answer to your comments about our wisdom in invading Afghanistan, yes previous armies have come a bit of a cropper there. This, however is no reason to shy away from the place when the religious fanatics who have taken over the place are using it to train the next generation of crazies.
    Where do you want to fight the loonies? Afghanistan or in your nice suburban street?

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    are comments still moderated even for registered accounts?

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    20 HackToff asks 'What have you ever done for your country?'
    I am 82 years old, so have a guess.

    And several people have assured me that some of our generals were not upper class, and some were not stupid ... but none has answered my remark about the stupidity of going to war in Afghanistan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I started reading Catch 22 a couple months ago and am about half way through, slowly digesting Heller's brilliant work. Technically it can be repetitive as he lists and makes very long sentences, but reinforcement through repetition I suppose lends it the military feel.
    Each character is representative of a particular world view caught in the military machine, each immediately identifiable

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Joseph Heller is dead so I'm not sure what purpose this will serve, but I'd like to thank him for having written this book. I wish I'd got the chance to have done this in person.


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