The novel also offers a commentary on the absurdity of war, and of the bureaucracies wars create. For example: Major Major appears to have been promoted to his position simply because of his name, not his aptitude, and he remains in this position while doing nothing. The chaplain’s assistant, Whitcomb, is an atheist who will carry out none of his superior’s directives out of a desire to ascend to the role of chaplain himself. Scheisskopf, whose only military skill is a love of organizing parades, is promoted to general, and eventually outranks even Dreedle and Peckem. The CID men dispatched to investigate mail-tampering and forgery eventually settle on the chaplain as the culprit—even when the chaplain’s handwriting doesn’t match the letters’, he is still suspected. Major Sanderson, the staff psychiatrist, uses his sessions with Yossarian to expound on his own neuroses and paranoia. And Milo uses military men and material to serve his own economic interests, even going so far as to aid the Germans to broaden his market.
These are examples of the comic dimension of military bureaucracy: Heller does an exquisite job of sending up the Army’s absurdity. But there is also a tragic dimension. Cathcart’s insistence on continued missions leads to dangerous flights over unnecessary targets, and encourages the slaughter of innocent civilians. These missions result in the death of many characters, including Nately, Clevinger, and Havermeyer. The military makes Dunbar “disappear” for his insubordination. And many officers insist on continued air strikes even after the outcome of the war tilts decidedly in the Allies’ favor. These officers, including Peckem, Dreedle, Korn, and Cathcart, are more concerned about their own promotions and recognition than about the lives of their men or of civilians on the ground. Thus the initially comic nature of military bureaucracy obscures the selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and cruelty of many officials that seems to be the product of that bureaucracy.
War and Bureaucracy ThemeTracker
War and Bureaucracy Quotes in Catch-22
Insanity is contagious. This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world, for that matter.
As far back as Yossarian could recall, he explained to Clevinger with a patient smile, somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him.
But Yossarian still didn’t understand how Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.
Even among men lacking all distinction he [Major Major] inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”
“You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”
“You aren’t letting him sign any.”
“Of course not . . . that would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade.”
Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.
What displeased Corporal Whitcomb most about the chaplain, apart from the fact that the chaplain believed in God, was his lack of initiative and aggressiveness.
The Germans are being driven out [of Italy], and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong.
But the Germans are also members in good standing of the syndicate, and it’s my job to protect their rights as shareholders. . . . Don’t you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany?
“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”
Even people who were not there remembered vividly exactly what happened next. There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering, overwhelming howl of the planes engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson’s two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, standing stock-still on the raft . . . .
The War Department replied touchingly that there had been no error and that she [Mrs. Daneeka] was undoubtedly the victim of some sadistic and psychotic forger in her husband’s squadron. The letter to husband was returned unopened, stamped KILLED IN ACTION.
“They’re going to disappear him.”
“They’re what? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I heard them talking behind a door.”
. . .
“It doesn’t make sense. it isn’t even good grammar. What the hell does it mean when they disappear someone?”
No, sir . . . it’s generally known that you’ve flown only two missions. And that one of those occurred when Aarfy accidentally flew you over enemy territory while navigating you to Naples for a black-market water cooler.