Study Guide

Catch-22 Power

By Joseph Heller


Then there was the educated Texan from Texas who looked like someone in Technicolor and felt, patriotically, that people of means – decent folk – should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists and indecent folk – people without means. (1.13)

Despite the Texan's seeming patriotism, his beliefs turn out to be class biased. He seeks to suppress the voice of those less wealthy than the average, middle-class American.

Dunbar sat up like a shot. "That's it," he cried excitedly. "There was something missing – and now I know what it is." He banged his first down into his palm. "No patriotism," he declared.

"You're right," Yossarian shouted back. "You're right, you're right, you're right. The hot dog, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mom's apple pie. That's what everyone's fighting for. But who's fighting for the decent folk? Who's fighting for more votes for the decent folk? There's no patriotism, that's what it is. And no matriotism, either. (1.15-16)

Yossarian and Dunbar mock the Texan for his jingoism. The American lifestyle, which includes hotdogs, Brooklyn Dodgers and apple pie, is exactly what they are fighting to preserve. They demonstrate that it is greedy and illogical for them to fight for more material wealth on behalf of those who already have votes.

The colonel dwelt in a vortex of specialists who were still specializing in trying to determine what was troubling him. They hurled lights in his eyes to see if he could see, rammed needles into nerves to hear if he could feel. There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts […]

The colonel had really been investigated. There was not an organ of his body that had not been drugged and derogated, dusted and dredged, fingered and photographed, removed, plundered, and replaced. (1.100-101)

Despite all the specialists investigating the colonel, nobody can figure out what is wrong with him. This points out the hospital's ineptitude.

When he had exhausted all the possibilities in the letters, he began attacking the names and addresses on the envelopes, obliterating whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of his wrist as though he were God. (1.12)

The censoring of the letters makes it seem as though the bureaucracy has the authority of God.

Appleby was as good at shooting crap as he was at playing Ping-Pong, and he was as good at playing Ping-Pong as he was at everything else. Everything Appleby did, he did well. Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood, and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them, and everybody who knew him liked him.

"I hate that son of a b****," Yossarian growled. (2.23-24)

Appleby is a symbol of American virtue. His character is described with such inflated language and exaggeration that he sounds like a saint – too good to be true. And he is, as is apparent by Yossarian's dislike of him. This shows Yossarian's derision of American values and the "American Way of Life." 

…with the corporal in eyeglasses who everybody knew was probably a subversive. Captain Black knew he was a subversive because he wore eyeglasses and used words like panacea and utopia, and because he disapproved of Adolf Hitler, who had done such a great job of combating un-American activities in Germany. (4.19)

Captain Black shows a fear of all things un-American, such as utopian society and Nazism. Because of the Captain's black-and-white view on such matters, the corporal is labeled a subversive without the benefit of the doubt.

Under Colonel Korn's rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. (4.36)

Censorship of speech is another characteristic of the flawed bureaucracy in Catch-22.

[Milo:] "Everybody is happy but this thief, and there's no sense worrying about him, since he doesn't even speak our language and deserves whatever he gets." (7.101)

Milo shows poor nationalism by discriminating against those who do not speak English.

"English history!" roared the silver-maned senior Senator from his state indignantly. "What's the matter with American history? American history is as good as any history in the world!" (9.16)

This Senator demonstrates jingoism, assuming everything American is the best.

Dr. Stubbs laughed with sardonic amusement at the prospect. "They think they can order sick call out of existence. The bastards." (10.47)

Another flaw of bureaucracy in Catch-22 is "ordering out of existence" whatever programs it does not like.

[Captain Black:] "The important thing is to keep pledging," he explained to his cohorts. "It doesn't matter whether they mean it or not. That's why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what 'pledge' and 'allegiance' mean." (11.11)

Here is a prime example of indoctrination – the teaching of something by repetition to someone without explaining what it fully means. This is another flaw of a corrupt bureaucracy.

Colonel Cathcart was impervious to absolutes. He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the men his own age who were doing the same thing even better. The fact that there were thousands of men his own age and older who had not even attained the rank of major enlivened him in foppish delight in his own remarkable worth; on the other hand, the fact that there were men of his own age and younger who were already generals contaminated him with an agonizing sense of failure and made him gnaw at his fingernails with an unappeasable anxiety…(19.2)

Colonel Cathcart embodies a fault of the bureaucracy – its lack of sound judgment and its inability to make decisions.

Colonel Cathcart was helpless to assess exactly how much ground he had gained or lost with his goddam skeet-shooting range and wished that Colonel Korn were in his office right then to evaluate the entire episode for him still one more time and assuage his fears. (19.61)

Colonel Cathcart is incapable of making level headed judgments by himself; that unsoundness and indecision is reflected in his administrative decisions.

Colonel Cathcart stopped in his tracks. "What atheists?" he bellowed defensively, his whole manner changing in a flash to one of virtuous and belligerent denial. "There are no atheists in my outfit! Atheism is against the law, isn't it?"

"No, sir."

"It isn't?" The colonel was surprised. "Then it's un-American, isn't it?

"I'm not sure, sir," answered the chaplain.

"Well, I am!" the colonel declared. "I'm not going to disrupt our religious services just to accommodate a bunch of lousy atheists. They're getting no special privileges from me. They can stay right where they are and pray with the rest of us." (19.42-46)

The Colonel shows two faults of his administration – ignorance and prejudice. He is uncertain whether atheism is against the law or even un-American – to the point where he has to ask the chaplain. Then he compounds his mistake by showing a blatant prejudice against atheists, trying to deny their right to free practice by pretending to be fair and equitable in the treatment of all his men.

Yossarian…it was an odious, alien, distasteful name, a name that just did not inspire confidence. It was not at all like such clean, crisp, honest, American names as Cathcart, Peckem and Dreedle. (21.6)

Cathcart reveals his jingoism by distrusting anything that doesn't immediately seem American.

[…] suddenly Colonel Cathcart had absolutely no conception of how strongly he stood with anyone and began banging on the buzzer with his fist for Colonel Korn to come running into his office and assure him that everybody loved him, that Yossarian was a figment of his imagination, and that he was making wonderful progress in the splendid and valiant campaign he was waging to become a general. (21.29)

Again, Cathcart needs others to make judgments for him. His indecision is quite pathetic in its exaggeration.

[Colonel Dreedle:] "I run a fighting outfit," he told them sternly, when the room had grown absolutely quiet and the men on the benches were all cowering sheepishly, "and there'll be no more moaning in this group as long as I'm in command. Is that clear?"

It was clear to everybody but Major Danby, who was still concentrating on his wrist watch and counting down the seconds aloud.

"…four…three…two…one…time!" called out Major Danby, and raised his eyes triumphantly to discover that no one had been listening to him and that he would have to begin all over again. "Ooooh," he moaned in frustration.

"What was that?" roared General Dreedle incredulously, and whirled around in a murderous rage upon Major Danby, who staggered back in terrified confusion and began to quail and perspire. "Who is this man?"

"M-major Danby, sir," Colonel Cathcart stammered. "My group operations officer."

"Take him out and shoot him," ordered General Dreedle. (21.86-90)

This is one of the most blatant scenes of bureaucratic brutality in Catch-22. Dreedle has no compassion for Danby's situation and does not care if Danby moaned for a completely different reason than the other men did. The fact that he orders him shot without even questioning him symbolizes the cold savagery of the wartime administration.

[Milo:] "[…] they know that what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, because that's what makes Sammy run. The men in the control towers have a share, too, and that's why they always have to do whatever they can to help the syndicate."

The U.S. benefits from the syndicate's profits. Additionally, if individuals have a personal interest in the syndicate (like holding a share), they are more likely to help it in whatever way is necessary for profits to increase. Basically, America likes money.

"I suppose you just don't care if you lose your leg, do you?"

"It's my leg."

"It certainly is not your leg!" Nurse Cramer retorted. "That leg belongs to the U.S. government. It's no different than a gear or a bedpan. The Army has invested a lot of money to make you an airplane pilot, and you've no right to disobey the doctor's orders." (26.55-57)

Nurse Cramer sees Yossarian as a product of the bureaucracy: not as a human being, but as a piece of property owned by the army. By extension, Yossarian has no right to break any government regulations.

General Peckem laid great, fastidious stress on small matters of taste and style. He was always augmenting things. Approaching events were never coming, but always upcoming. It was not true that he wrote memorandums praising himself and recommending that his authority be enhanced to include all combat operations; he wrote memoranda. And the prose in the memoranda of other officers was always turgid, stilted, or ambiguous. The errors of others were inevitably deplorable. Regulations were stringent, and his data never was obtained from a reliable source, but always were obtained. General Peckem was frequently constrained. Things were often incumbent upon him, and he frequently acted with greatest reluctance. It never escaped his memory that neither black nor white was a color, and he never used verbal when he meant oral. (29.6)

This passage demonstrates how needlessly complex bureaucratic language can be. This kind of language makes official documents difficult to understand for the common man. This rather stilted style of language makes the government sound exclusive and professional at the expense of being efficient and actually getting things done.

[General Peckem:] "Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that's because I am a good executive." (29.12)

This laziness of the top officials and the willingness to let work slide to the bottom rungs is a characteristic flaw of the bureaucracy that Heller mocks. Notice that Peckem is still using one of his beloved terms – "delegation of responsibility" (a.k.a. "laziness").

"We don't care about the roadblock," Colonel Korn informed him. "Colonel Cathcart wants to come out of this mission with a good clean aerial photograph he won't be ashamed to send through channels." (29.85)

The bureaucracy is willing to risk destroying innocent lives for the sake of making one man – who is important to the nation – look good. Bureaucracy is often criticized for concerning itself too much with propaganda.

[Nurse Duckett to Yossarian:] "I don't know. I couldn't see them. I just heard them say they were going to disappear Dunbar." (34.60)

The concept of getting rid of troublesome members is one of the most chilling aspects of a corrupt bureaucracy. An individual disappears without a trace, and the government covers the operation up. Panic spreads as people begin distrusting their administration, but are forced to cling ever tighter to it for fear of being next. Finally, the dissident ideas spread by the "disappeared" person begin to fade.

[Colonel Korn to the chaplain:] "You know damned well Dr. Stubbs has been telling the men in his squadron they didn't have to fly more than seventy missions." He laughed harshly. "Well, Padre, they do have to fly more than seventy missions, because we're transferring Dr. Stubbs to the Pacific." (36.163)

A corrupt bureaucracy is one who gets rid of those who have a sense of morality, and consequently refuse to cooperate with illogical instructions.

"Won't you fight for your country? Colonel Korn demanded, emulating Colonel Cathcart's harsh, self-righteous tone. "Won't you give up your life for Colonel Cathcart and me?"

Yossarian tensed with alert astonishment when he heard Colonel Korn's concluding words. "What's that?" he exclaimed. "What have you and Colonel Cathcart got to do with my country? You're not one and the same."

"How can you separate us?" Colonel Korn inquired with ironical tranquility. (40.33-35)

One fault of the average citizen is to is to confuse the bureaucratic officials with the nation itself. These identities can often merge in the public eye.

[Colonel Korn:] "Colonel Cathcart wants to be a general and I want to be a colonel, and that's why we have to send you home."

"Why does he want to be a general?"

"Why? For the same reason that I want to be a colonel. What else have we got? Everyone teaches us to aspire to higher things. A general is higher than a colonel, and a colonel is higher than a lieutenant colonel. So we're both aspiring." (40.61-63)

This shows institutional indoctrination. Everyone is taught to aspire to higher things without specifically being told why. It is just assumed that "higher" equals "better."

[Major Danby:] "Yossarian, they can prepare as many official reports as they want and choose whichever ones they need on any given occasion." (42.27)

This bureaucracy has no qualms about manipulating information to feed to the public. Their goal is to control all public opinion.